Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators who threw plastic bottles in running battles outside the Legislative Council on Wednesday as protests continued against an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial, Reuters reports.
Tens of thousands of protesters had gathered peacefully outside Legco in Admiralty before tempers flared and the demonstration turned to violent, some charging police with umbrellas. Police warned them back, saying: “We will use force.”
The protesters, most of them young people wearing masks and goggles and dressed in black, had erected barricades as they prepared to hunker down for an extended occupation of the area, in scenes reminiscent of pro-democracy “Occupy” protests in 2014.
Protesters rallied in and around Lung Wo Road, a main east-west artery near the offices of embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, as hundreds of armed riot police, some with plastic shields, warned them to stop advancing.
Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung defended the firing of tear gas and rubber bullet against protesters, saying officers had to take action after their defense lines came under attack, RTHK reported.
Lo ruled out imposing a curfew, however.
“Didn’t we say at the end of the Umbrella movement we would be back?” pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said, referring to the name often used for the “Occupy” demonstrations, whose trademark was the yellow umbrella.
“Now we are back!” she said as supporters echoed her words.
Others once again called for Lam to step down.
Opposition to the bill on Sunday triggered Hong Kong’s biggest political demonstration since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” deal guaranteeing it special autonomy, including freedom of assembly, free press and an independent judiciary.
Lam has vowed to press ahead with the legislation despite deep concerns in Hong Kong, including among business leaders, that it could undermine those freedoms and investor confidence and erode the city’s competitive advantages.
Legco earlier on Wednesday postponed debate on the bill until further notice.
“We won’t leave till they scrap the law,” said one young man wearing a black mask and gloves.
“Carrie Lam has underestimated us. We won’t let her get away with this.”
Beijing again reiterated that the “one country, two systems” formula was best for maintaining long-term prosperity and stability.
“The practice of ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong has achieved remarkable success. This is an undeniable objective fact,” Taiwan Affairs Office spokesman An Fengshan told a regular news briefing in Beijing.
China’s Foreign Ministry reiterated its support for the legislation.
“Any actions that harm Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability are opposed by mainstream public opinion in Hong Kong,” spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters.
He was asked about rumors that more Chinese security forces were going to be sent to Hong Kong. He said this was “fake news”.
The rally was within sight of the Hong Kong garrison of China’s People’s Liberation Army, whose presence in the city has been one of the most sensitive elements of the 1997 handover.
Many of the protesters, who skipped work, school or university to join the rally, defied police calls to retreat and passed around provisions, including medical supplies, goggles, water and food.
Some stockpiled bricks broken away from pavements.
Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung urged the protesters to stop occupying the road and appealed for calm and restraint. “We also appeal to the people who are stationed to … disperse as soon as possible, and not to try to defy/challenge the law,” he said.
Standard Chartered, Bank of East Asia and HSBC suspended bank operations at some branches in the area.
A spokesman for bourse operator Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEX) said Lam would not attend a cocktail reception on Wednesday as previously planned.
The proposed bill has attracted widespread criticism at home and abroad, prompting rare criticism from judges, Hong Kong’s business community, some pro-establishment figures and several foreign governments and business chambers.
Demonstrators began joining overnight protests earlier on Wednesday as businesses across the city prepared to go on strike.
Lam has sought to soothe public concerns and said her administration was creating additional amendments to the bill, including safeguarding human rights.
Under the proposed law, Hong Kong residents, as well as foreign and Chinese nationals living or traveling through the city, would all be at risk if they were wanted on the mainland.
Sunday’s protest, which organizers said saw more than a million people take to the streets, in addition to a growing backlash against the extradition bill, could raise questions about Lam’s ability to govern effectively.
The protests have plunged Hong Kong into political crisis, just as the 2014 demonstrations did, heaping pressure on Lam’s administration and her official backers in Beijing.
The failure of the 2014 protests to wrest concessions on democracy from Beijing, coupled with the prosecutions of at least 100 mostly young protesters, initially discouraged many from returning to the streets. That changed on Sunday.
The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong called on the government not to pass the bill “hurriedly” and urged Christians to pray for the city. Lam, who warned against “radical action” at the protests, is a Catholic.
Human rights groups have repeatedly cited the alleged use of torture, arbitrary detentions, forced confessions and problems accessing lawyers in China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, as reasons why the Hong Kong bill should not proceed.
China denies accusations that it tramples on human rights and official media said this week “foreign forces” were trying to damage China by creating chaos over the extradition bill.
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