HONG KONG – Hundreds of protesters faced off with riot police early on Monday, the anniversary of Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule, ahead of an annual rally that is expected to draw huge crowds amid widespread anger over a controversial extradition bill.
Police fired pepper spray to disperse the demonstrators in the latest protests over the extradition bill, which would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.
The bill, which the government was forced to suspend after the largest and most violent protests in decades, has plunged the Asian financial center into political turmoil.
Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam appeared in public for the first time in more than 10 days to officiate at a flag-raising ceremony to mark the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover to Beijing under a deal to ensure its autonomy.
The July 1 anniversary of the 1997 handover has been marked in recent years by deepening despondency about what many residents see as increasing meddling by the mainland and the erosion of freedoms.
Beijing denies interfering but, for many Hong Kong residents, the extradition bill is the latest step in a relentless march toward mainland control.
The extradition law has hit a nerve across Hong Kong, drawing criticism from business people, legal circles, schools and church groups.
Millions have taken to the streets in recent weeks to demand the bill be scrapped and that Lam step down.
The uproar over the bill has reignited a protest movement that had lost steam after pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 failed to force concessions from Beijing and led to the arrests of hundreds of activists.
Organizers of the recent protests say they are confident that anger over the government's failure to withdraw the extradition bill will boost numbers on Monday, a public holiday on which financial markets and most businesses will be closed.