Violence erupted in Hong Kong on Wednesday as thousands of protesters amassed near the government’s headquarters.
Police have fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the crowds as anger about a contentious extradition bill spilled into violence.
A legislative session on the bill was delayed as an overwhelmingly young crowd of demonstrators filled nearby streets, overturned barriers and tussled with police outside the offices where the bill was due to be discussed.
If you haven’t been keeping up with the news, here’s the lowdown on why the bill has sparked such a large scale protest.
First, is Hong Kong part of China?
This is one of the most googled questions about Hong Kong so it’s probably a good starting point. The answer is yes, but it is complicated.
In 1997, the former British colony became a special administrative region of China when Britain’s 99-year lease of the New Territories, north of Hong Kong island, expired.
Under its “one country, two systems” framework, Hong Kong was guaranteed the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years following the handover from British to Chinese rule.
However, China’s ruling Communist Party has been seen as increasingly reneging on that agreement by forcing through unpopular legal changes.
What is the extradition bill?
Hong Kong currently limits extraditions to jurisdictions with which it has existing agreements and to others on an individual basis. China has been excluded from those agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.
The proposed changes would allow for extradition requests from authorities in mainland China, Taiwan and Macau for suspects accused of criminal wrongdoings, such as murder and rape. The requests will then be decided on a case-by-case basis.
The move came after a 19-year-old Hong Kong man allegedly murdered his 20-year-old pregnant girlfriend while they were holidaying in Taiwan together in February last year. He then fled back to Hong Kong and could not be extradited to Taiwan because no extradition treaty exists between the two countries.
Officials have said Hong Kong courts will have the final say whether to grant such extradition requests, and suspects accused of political and religious crimes will not be extradited.
Why do people oppose it?
The protests have widely been seen as reflecting growing apprehension about relations with the Communist Party-ruled mainland, whose leader, Xi Jinping, has said he has zero tolerance for those demanding greater self-rule for Hong Kong.
The legislation has become a lightning rod for concerns about Beijing’s increasing control over the semi-autonomous territory.
Critics believe the extradition legislation would put Hong Kong residents at risk of being entrapped in China’s judicial system, in which opponents of Communist Party rule have been charged with economic crimes or ill-defined national security offenses, and would not be guaranteed free trials.
What are the protesters doing?
The protests have been building ahead of the planned second reading of the bill. On Sunday, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong in the biggest protest since the 2014 demonstrations about electoral freedom.
On Tuesday night, a crowd began gathering outside the Legislative Council, and the U.S. Consulate warned people to avoid the area, exercise caution and keep a low profile.
Early on Wednesday protesters, some wearing face masks and helmets, blocked key roads around government buildings. Violence erupted when police tried to clear the crowds by firing rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters.
Some businesses decided to close for the day, and while labor strikes and school and university protests have also been called, it was not immediately clear if those were widely heeded.
What are the protesters saying?
One protester, who gave only his first name Marco, said: “We want the government to just set the legislation aside and not bring it back.”
A fellow protester who gave her name as King said the protest is a watershed moment for Hong Kong’s young generation, who face difficult job prospects and skyrocketing housing prices.
“We’re young but we know that if we don’t stand up for our rights, we might lose them,” said an 18-year-old protester who gave only her first name, Jacky, to avoid possible retaliation from authorities.
“We have to stand up for our rights or they will be taken away,” she said.
The reluctance of protesters to be identified by their full names and professions – many wore surgical masks to obscure their facial features – reflects an increasingly hard-line approach to civil unrest by the authorities.
Such actions are never tolerated in mainland China and Hong Kong residents can face travel bans and other repercussions if they cross the border.
Why do politicians want the bill to go through?
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has consistently defended the legislation as necessary to close legal loopholes with other countries and territories.
Lam, who canceled her regular question and answer session on Wednesday, said the government had considered concerns from the private sector and altered the bill to improve human rights safeguards. She said without the changes, Hong Kong would risk becoming a haven for fugitives.
She emphasized that extradition cases would be decided by Hong Kong courts.
A government statement said the session of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council that was scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. local time on Wednesday would be “changed to a later time” yet to be decided.
The vote on the bill is scheduled to take place on June 20 and it looks unlikely that the protests will let up in the meantime.