Protesters fought pitched battles with police in central Hong Kong on Wednesday in an eruption of public anger against an extradition bill that critics see as a fundamental threat to the territory’s civic freedoms and rule of law.
Police used pepper spray, rubber bullets and tear gas and by 7pm Hong Kong time had cleared demonstrators from immediately outside the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s de facto parliament, following violent scenes that left several people injured. But late evening, thousands of protesters remained in a stand-off with police in the centre of the city with the city’s Hospital Authority confirming that 72 people were injured, with two in serious condition.
“The police used some aggressive actions towards protesters today,” said one 24-year-old demonstrator, who identified himself only as Joe. He joined the protests around 8am but took refuge in a McDonald’s restaurant in the early evening. “They shot consecutively towards the protesters, who had no protection – only gloves and goggles. We cannot fight back,” he added, saying he watched eight officers surround a protester “and beat him”.
Lawmakers, who had been due to debate the bill, were forced to delay the session because of the protests, which shut down large parts of Hong Kong, Asia’s premier financial centre, from the early morning. A number of small businesses closed, with one the city’s main teachers’ unions calling on teachers to skip classes on Thursday and Friday following the clashes.
The government says the proposed law, which will allow criminal suspects for the first time to be extradited to mainland China, is needed to fill a legal loophole allowing Hong Kong to be potentially used as a haven for criminal fugitives. But opponents fear it will allow China to extradite political opponents or others from the city on potentially trumped up charges.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has vowed to push ahead with the bill, ignoring a protest against the law on Sunday that was Hong Kong’s largest since its handover in 1997 to China from Britain, with an estimated 1m taking to the streets. The government has not yet set a new deadline for resumption of debate on the bill.
Ms Lam wept in a television interview on Wednesday. “Some people are saying that I am selling out Hong Kong, how can I sell out Hong Kong? I was born and raised here,” she said.
But she said she would not withdraw the bill. “I have never felt guilty because of this matter because I just said that the initial intention of our work is still solid and correct.”
The issue has sparked concern in the US where the administration and members of Congress have urged Hong Kong to consider the consequences of the extradition bill.
Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, said the people of Hong Kong were “fully justified” in their concerns about the extradition bill, and warned Hong Kong about potential ramifications for its relationship with the US.
“The proposal is fundamentally flawed, and should be withdrawn or postponed indefinitely,” Mr Risch said on Wednesday. “Its passage will compel the Senate to re-evaluate aspects of the US-Hong Kong relationship.”
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, issued a statement on Tuesday saying the proposed legislation “imperils the safety of the 85,000 Americans living in Hong Kong” and that she looked forward to the introduction of a bipartisan “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act” in the coming days. UK foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt urged the government to “preserve Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms”.
US President Donald Trump on Wednesday said he had never seen protests as big as the one in Hong Kong over the weekend. Asked about what message he thought Hong Kong residents were sending China, however, Mr Trump said he was not sure.
“I understand the reason for the demonstration, but I’m sure they’ll be able to work it out. I hope they’re going to be able to work it out with China,” Mr Trump said.
The “one country, two systems” framework agreed at Hong Kong’s handover was meant to guarantee the territory’s civic freedoms and legal system – unique in China – for 50 years. But critics argue these have gradually been eroded over the past five years, starting with a crackdown on the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests in 2014.
“Don’t underestimate the anger among average people. The young people are . . . the front line but actually there are so many people out there – middle class, working class – who are very, very angry,” said Charles Mok, a former IT executive who represents the sector in Hong Kong’s partially democratic Legislative Council.
“They are angry because the government isn’t listening to them.”
Hong Kong’s Hang Seng stock index dropped 1.7 per cent on the protests, in spite of the announcement that the debate in the legislature had been delayed.
“It’s not a success,” said a 30-year-old protester in reaction to the news the government had postponed the debate, adding that it could be rescheduled for any time.
China’s foreign ministry said Beijing supported the bill. “Any behaviour that undermines prosperity and stability in the territory will be opposed by mainstream public opinion in Hong Kong,” a foreign ministry spokesman said.
But Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen said she was shocked that the government used rubber bullets against a peaceful protest.
“When the freedom of the people of Hong Kong is facing a retreat under the trap of ‘one country, two systems’ set by China, we should resolutely guard the democracy and freedom of Taiwan,” said Ms Tsai.
In the late afternoon, the clashes intensified. Police fired tear gas canisters at the crowds as they tried to clear major roads in the area.
Hong Kong’s commissioner of police, Lo Wai-Chung, confirmed at a press briefing that tear gas and rubber bullets had been deployed against protesters but said he was unable to provide an estimate of the number of injuries. He said protesters had set fires, thrown bricks and attacked using metal poles.
The demonstrators, mostly aged between 15 and 30, were wearing face masks for fear of prosecution. Their occupation of key roads prevented some pro-Beijing lawmakers from gaining access to the central government offices for the debate.
Drivers said they had been stuck in traffic for hours, although most added that they sympathised with the protesters.
The city’s police were out in force in anticipation of the crowds after students and small businesses said they would strike on Wednesday.
“The government wants this bill to pass as soon as possible to prevent further escalation of the protests which have already been very large,” said Samson Yuen, a political scientist at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
The attempt to rush through the bill “really breaks the deliberative tradition of legislation in Hong Kong because even for any bill not as important as this one, it usually takes weeks or months to debate”, he said.
A 30-year-old swimming coach, who identified himself only as Ben, wearing safety goggles and a mask, said: “I came out for the next generation . . . to keep Hong Kong safe for them.”
Mr Mok, of Legco, said: “It’s really not about the bill any more. If you can shove it down my throat like this, this time, what else will you do?”
The US state department expressed its ” grave concern ” over the bill on Monday, saying the proposal put Hong Kong’s special status at risk.