In a sharp escalation of its confrontation with President Trump over trade, China is blaming the United States for fomenting the massive, unprecedented protests erupting in Hong Kong.
State-funded Chinese media are accusing the protesters of being "a puppet of the United States," suggesting the Trump administration is trying to undermine the Chinese government at a time when the world's two largest economies are in loggerheads over a trade dispute.
Organizers estimated over 1 million protesters came out to shut down Hong Kong's streets, businesses, and government buildings Sunday.
The protesters oppose a proposed law that would allow criminal defendants, including political activists, to be extradited to mainland China for trial by Communist authorities. Protesters say extradition would effectively end the rule of law in Hong Kong and replace it with Communist Party hegemony.
Tensions rose Wednesday as protesters blocked the assembly from Hong Kong's Legislative Council and government headquarters, delaying a second reading of the bill. The session was then adjourned until "a later time to be determined," according to a statement from the government's press service.
The 70-seat council is controlled in large part by a pro-Beijing majority and led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is one of the main forces pushing the bill for approval.
"It is very noteworthy that some international forces have significantly strengthened their interaction with the Hong Kong opposition in recent months," the nationalistic Global Times said in an editorial.
The English-language China Daily dismissed the protest as smaller than reported, and citing more than 700,000 signatures on an online petition, claimed the extradition bill enjoyed popular support.
"Unfortunately, some Hong Kong residents have been hoodwinked by the opposition camp and their foreign allies into supporting the anti-extradition campaign," the paper said.
Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one-country, two-systems" approach, with the pledge the former British colony would retain its own social and legal institutions for 50 years. The legislation places that promise in jeopardy and prompted the demonstrations.
"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, The Associated Press reported.
Although the demonstrations are comprised chiefly of young protesters, especially students, the pending legislation is disturbing to the business community as well.
"The extradition bill is worrying because for business it starts to call into question whether there is now a blurred line between politics and business in a city that views itself as a commercial capital that puts business first," said Tara Joseph, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asia, met with Hong Kong business leaders last month. Lee Cheuk Yan, General Secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, was a member of that group and predicted what would result if the bill were approved.
"Hong Kong people have experienced firsthand the infamous Chinese judicial system when they work and visit China," he told Rubio and Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., Rubio's counterpart on the House side.
"We know it is captive of the Communist Party and notorious for trumping up charges and forced televised confessions," he said. "If the extradition law passes, any person in Hong Kong, including foreign nationals, can be at risk to be sent back to China for trial."
There are growing signs Hong Kong is caught in the middle as the world's two largest economies battle it out over trade. Of particular concern are Hong Kong's housing bubble and inflated real estate values. Reduced exports could trigger an implosion in real estate, which in turn could rattle its financial and equity markets. The perception the rule of law is under assault by the central government could make investors skittish.
Michael Every, head of Asia-Pacific financial-markets research for Rabobank, warns foreign-based firms could exit Hong Kong for Singapore "where you won't be at risk of ending up in the Chinese judicial system."