Protesters in Hong Kong pushed barriers and dumpsters into the streets early Monday morning local time in an apparent bid to block access to a symbolically important ceremony marking the anniversary of the return of the former British colony to China.

Police in riot gear faced them in loose formation about 20 metres down the road. The area around Golden Bauhinia Square, where the ceremony takes place, has been shut down since Saturday.

Senior Hong Kong officials, including leader Carrie Lam, and representatives of mainland China are due to attend the annual flag-raising on the 22nd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong on July 1, 1997.

A protest march has been called for later Monday, the third in three weeks. The annual march is expected to be larger than usual because of widespread opposition to a government proposal that would allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China to face charges. Organizers estimated that more than a million people took to the streets in the two previous marches in June.

The proposal has awakened broader fears that China is eroding the freedoms and rights that Hong Kong was guaranteed for 50 years after the handover under a “one country, two systems” framework.

For Lam, who typically speaks at a reception after the flag-raising, it will be her first public appearance in more than two weeks. Protesters, who have staged a series of demonstrations since mid-June, are demanding that she resign over the extradition bill.

Protesters wear gas masks as they block a road leading to a ceremony in Hong Kong. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

In a counter-protest on Sunday, tens of thousands of people rallied in support of the police, who have come under criticism for using tear gas and rubber bullets during a crackdown on a protest that left dozens injured on June 12.

The boisterous crowd, some carrying Chinese flags, filled a park in front of the legislature and chanted “thank you” to the police. Some had angry exchanges with anti-extradition law protesters, as officers tried to keep the two groups apart. Police estimated the turnout at 53,000.

The government has already postponed debate on the extradition bill indefinitely, leaving it to die, but protest leaders want the legislation formally withdrawn and Lam’s resignation. They also are demanding an independent inquiry into police actions on June 12.

Police in riot gear stand in loose formation about 20 metres down the road from protesters. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

Also Sunday, hundreds of people gathered at the Education University of Hong Kong to hold a moment of silence and lay flowers for a 21-year-old student who fell to her death the previous day in an apparent suicide. Hong Kong media reports said she wrote a message on a wall stating the protesters’ demands and asking others to persist.

“It’s reminding us we need to keep going on the process of fighting with the, I wouldn’t say fighting with the government, but we need to keep going on fighting not to have the extradition law,” student Gabriel Lau said.

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