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Hong Kong tense as House debate is cancelled; protesters plan more action

Hong Kong

A HEAVY air of tension hung over Hong Kong on Thursday as the legislative body cancelled debate for the rest of the week on a reviled Bill that would pave the way for extraditions to mainland China.

Emboldened activists called for a fresh wave of protests on Sunday - dragging out the drama playing out in this city over the degree of authority Beijing can assert over the semi-autonomous financial hub.

A local radio station reported that more than 200 members of the Chief Executive Election Committee have called on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to withdraw the Bill and step down to take responsibility for the violent enforcement against protesters, who had clashed with the police on Wednesday.

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Arrests of about a dozen activists, including some made at hospitals where they were getting treatment from injuries sustained by police tactics, and a cyber attack on a messaging app used for organising the protest raised the spectre of a crackdown against demonstrators that could intensify if more large-scale protests are planned.

Though the demonstrators had largely left the central Hong Kong streets they occupied until late Wednesday evening, the Legislative Council, the territory's law-making body, once again postponed a reading on the extradition Bill, cancelling sessions on both Thursday and Friday.

The law would allow Hong Kong to extradite fugitives to countries with which it does not have a formal treaty, including mainland China - removing a long-held "firewall" between the legal systems of the two jurisdictions.

The legislature had previously said it would bring the bill to a vote by June 20. Andrew Leung, the council's president, had reserved 66 hours for debate. Law-makers said it would be hard for the legislature to keep to the planned timetable.

Meanwhile, the demonstrators showed no signs of backing down, despite appearing in small numbers on Thursday. Throughout the day, pockets of protesters with black, surgical masks obscuring their faces, wandered the streets near the Legislative Council, which they had occupied the day before. A silent protest was held on a pedestrian bridge leading to the complex. Metal barricades and rubbish littered the ground below.

Clad in black T-shirts, groups of them held up signs including some that read "Stop Shooting Hong Kong students".

A heavy police presence remained throughout the city, blocking the road leading to the chief executive's residence.

The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the group that organised the protest of more than a million people on Sunday in opposition to the Bill, called for more demonstrations over the weekend and on Monday.

"All Hong Kong people are holding on to the end!" the group said.

Hong Kong's financial and corporate elite are uneasy about the city's future, according to interviews with more than a dozen traders, bankers and executives.

They worry about the potential fallout from an extradition Bill that critics warn will erode Hong Kong's prized judicial independence from China.

One senior executive at a global investment bank said some professionals are questioning whether the city will remain a safe place to live and work. For international companies that maintain regional headquarters and employ thousands of workers there, the question is whether rising political risks could ultimately threaten the former British colony's appeal as a gateway to China.

For many, the concern is that China is chipping away at the "one country, two systems" framework that underpins Hong Kong's status as a global business hub.

Few expect an imminent exodus.

Mainland China residents seemed largely unaware Wednesday of the events in Hong Kong.

A Beijing woman in her 20s replied when asked by The Washington Post whether she had heard the news replied: "No. What's going on?"

Other Beijing residents passing through a crowded shopping street at lunch-time also claimed ignorance.

"Our Internet is a local-area network, and we can see only what they want us to see," said a man in his 30s.

The demonstrators have received bipartisan support from US law-makers, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, (D-California).

Speaking on Wednesday to reporters at the White House, President Donald Trump said he hopes protesters could "work it out" with Beijing.

"I understand the reason for the demonstration. I hope it all works out for China and for Hong Kong." WP, BLOOMBERG