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Protests Force Hong Kong's Lawmakers To Delay Vote On Extradition Bill


Protesters in Hong Kong are not backing down. Thousands were on the streets again today, demanding that the government there stop a bill that would send people accused of a crime to mainland China to face charges. The crowds blocked government buildings and major roads. Police in riot gear confronted the protesters, demanding they disperse.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Shouting in foreign language).


MARTIN: Meanwhile, the government in Hong Kong has announced they will delay a key hearing on the measure. Rob Schmitz is there in Hong Kong, joins us now on the line.

Rob, what are we hearing? What's the scene like there?

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Well, as we speak, Rachel, they have police in riot gear just blocks away from my hotel here, trying to clear crowds of thousands of people. And, you know, they're doing so with brutal and decisive force. They're hitting protesters with batons, using pepper spray, firing water cannons at the crowds. The streets are filled with clouds of tear gas. Several people have been injured on both sides. And at this hour, this is far from over. Hong Kong's police commissioner has declared the whole thing a riot, which means that anyone involved who's arrested could face up to 10 years in prison.

MARTIN: Wow. So we saw these huge protests on Sunday. Up to a million people were on the streets. Those were mostly peaceful, right? So why did today's protest take such a different tone?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. Well, today, Rachel, it's a much younger crowd than on Sunday, when you sort of had grannies and families coming out. Today they're students and people in their 20s. And they're angry. You know, they came ready for a fight, covering their faces with masks, bandanas to hide their identities and to protect themselves against pepper spray and tear gas. You know, and this all comes from their anger with their own government's refusal to back down on this extradition bill.

I spoke to 18-year-old Candy Lao (ph) today. She just graduated from high school. Her dream is to one day become a doctor. I asked her if she's considered leaving Hong Kong because of this crackdown on civil liberties.

CANDY LAO: Sometimes, but this is my hometown. It is really hard to live here.

SCHMITZ: And at this point, Rachel, she started to sort of cry. And I gave her a little time. And then I asked her what Beijing does not understand about the people in her hometown.

LAO: They do not understand that Hongkongers do not want to obey them because we have tried the taste of freedom, and we will never obey them or be controlled by them.

MARTIN: So protesters clearly don't see this as an isolated issue. They see this as a precursor to a dangerous erosion of civil liberties.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, that's right. You know, this bill, if it's passed, would allow the government of China to hand over any Hong Kong citizen that it believes broke the law. And for those protesting here, this is a significant step away from a government protecting your rights to one that's trampling on your rights and even punishing you for things like criticizing your government, you know, peacefully protesting government policies. You know, these are freedom-of-speech rights protected under the Hong Kong constitution. But across the border in China, authorities do not protect these rights. And Beijing routinely arrests and imprisons people for criticizing its leaders and their policies.

MARTIN: But are the protests making a difference now, Rob? I mean, the government is saying that they're at least going to delay this important hearing.

SCHMITZ: That's true. But when we look at history, you know, it's a little of a darker result. You know, five years ago, residents occupied the city's financial district for months to protest a rule that gave Beijing more power in selecting Hong Kong's leader. And that was called the Umbrella Movement, and it was about maintaining transparent elections. And many of the leaders of that movement have been imprisoned in Hong Kong as a result.

This latest extradition bill could give Beijing even more power, allowing it to take those democracy leaders or anyone else it doesn't like to China for punishment there. It's a terrifying bill for people in Hong Kong. And that's why you're seeing so much popular resistance to it and, as we've seen today, very violent resistance.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz, thank you.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.