HONG KONG, June 21 (Reuters) - Thousands dressed in black blocked Hong Kong roads and surrounded police headquarters on Friday in the latest wave of demonstrations over an extradition bill that has triggered violent protests and plunged the Chinese-ruled city into crisis.
Demonstrators, mostly students wearing hard hats, goggles and face masks, set up roadblocks and trapped vehicles on key roads in a mostly peaceful protest to demand that embattled leader Carrie Lam, who promoted and then postponed the bill, scrap it altogether.
“We want to fight for our freedom,” said high school student Chan Pak-lam, 17, who was protesting in sweltering heat of about 32 degrees Celsius (90°F).
“We want the law to be withdrawn, not suspended. I will stay here until tonight, 10 p.m. maybe. If the government doesn’t respond, we will come again.”
The protests, which pose the greatest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012, once again forced the temporary closure of government offices over security concerns.
Roads that would normally be jammed with lunch-time traffic near the heart of the Asian financial center lay empty, except for a few dozen demonstrators who were reinforcing roadblocks with metal barriers.
“Never surrender,” echoed through the streets as the protesters chanted near police headquarters and called on police chief Stephen Lo to step down.
Police warned activists through loud hailers not to charge.
Millions, fearing further erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms byChina, have clogged the streets of the former British colony this month to rally against the bill, which would allow people to be extradited to the mainland to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.
It triggered the most violent protests in decades when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowds.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, since when it has been governed under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including a much-cherished independent judiciary.
But many accuse China of obstructing democratic reforms, interfering with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.
Friday’s marchers demanded that the government drop all charges against those arrested in last week’s clashes, charge police with what they describe as violent action and stop referring to the protests as a riot.
Democracy activist Joshua Wong, who walked free from prison on Monday after serving nearly five weeks for contempt of court, urged police chief Stephen Lo to speak to the protesters, while others expressed anger at police treatment.
“SINCERE AND HUMBLE ATTITUDE”
Opponents of the bill fear the law could put them at the mercy of the mainland Chinese justice system which is plagued by torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detentions.
The turmoil has also raised questions over Lam’s ability to govern, two years after she was selected and pledged to “unite and move forward.”
Justice Secretary Teresa Cheng became the latest government minister to apologize over the bill.
“Regarding the controversies and disputes in society arising from the strife in the past few months, being a team member of the government, I offer my sincere apology to all people of HongKong,” Cheng wrote in her blog.
“We promise to adopt a most sincere and humble attitude to accept criticisms and make improvements in serving the public.”
While Lam admitted shortcomings over the bill and said she had heard the people “loud and clear,” she has rejected repeated calls to step down.
Concerns over the bill spread quickly, from democratic and human rights groups to the wider Hong Kong community, including pro-establishment business figures, some usually loath to contradict the government. Some Hong Kong tycoons have started moving personal wealth offshore.
Protesters had gathered early on Friday outside government offices before marching towards police headquarters. One activist read a letter of support from a Taiwan student.
“Brave HKers, perhaps when faced with adversity, we are all fragile and small, but please do not give up defending everything that you love,” the protester read through a loudhailer to applause.
Beijing has never renounced the use of force to take over self-ruled Taiwan, which it regards as a recalcitrant, breakaway province. Many have waved Taiwan flags at recent demonstrations in Hong Kong, images certain to rile authorities in Beijing.
Taiwan, overwhelmingly opposed to a “one country, two systems” formula for itself, has voiced support for Hong Kong.
After promises that post-handover Hong Kong should enjoy a high degree of autonomy, Beijing’s squeeze has fueled widespread resentment and in 2014 sparked pro-democracy protests that paralyzed parts of the city for 79 days.