Hong Kong police have used tear gas, rubber bullets and high-pressure water hoses against protesters who have laid siege to government buildings to oppose an extradition bill.
Thousands blocked entry to Hong Kong’s government headquarters Wednesday, delaying a legislative session on a proposed extradition bill that has become a lightning rod for concerns over greater Chinese control and erosion of civil liberties in the territory.
The protesters overflowed onto a major downtown road as they overturned barriers and tussled with police outside the building that also houses the chambers where the legislature was to discuss the bill, which would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be sent for trial in mainland China.
A statement from a Hong Kong administrator earlier said, “I would also like to ask the people in this gathering to stay calm and leave the scene as soon as possible and not to commit any crime.”
Hong Kong’s police commissioner says the scene around the city’s government headquarters was “chaotic” and is appealing for protesters to leave the area.
Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung told reporters that officers used batons, pepper spray, beanbag rounds, rubber bullets, water hoses and tear gas against the demonstrators.
He said police took action after a large group of masked protesters charged onto the roads surrounding the complex in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district and started throwing objects including metal barriers at officers.
Lo called the situation a riot, and said: “This is very dangerous action that could kill someone.”
He also said several people, including some officers, had been injured.
Watch as police attend to an injured protester:
The U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong said American citizens should avoid areas where protests are being held, “exercise caution” and “keep a low profile.” The violence has prompted the Canadian government to update its travel advisory for Hong Kong, acknowledging the demonstrations and advising travellers to “exercise caution.”
CBC’s Saša Petricic, who was in the streets of Hong Kong, said the legislature was ringed with protesters.
“There was union support and at least one instance of a bus driver who just simply parked his bus crossways on one of the major roads here and blocked traffic,” he said. “It was just one of the scenes that played itself out today as the centre of the city was really paralyzed.”
Watch as protesters are hit with pepper spray:
A protester who gave only his first name, Marco, said he hoped the action would persuade Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration to shelve the proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance.
“We want the government to just set the legislation aside and not bring it back,” Marco said.
fellow protester who gave her name as King said the protest was a watershed moment for Hong Kong’s young generation, who face difficult job prospects and skyrocketing housing prices.
Watch as police fire tear gas:
“We have to stand up for our rights or they will be taken away,” she said.
The reluctance of protesters to be identified by their full names and professions — many wore surgical masks to obscure their facial features — reflected an increasingly hard-line approach to civil unrest by the authorities. Such actions are never tolerated in mainland China, and Hong Kong residents can face travel bans and other repercussions if they cross the border.
Another statement from the government’s information office said access roads leading to the Central Government Offices were blocked and police has implemented traffic arrangements.
Chief Secretary for Administration Mathew Cheung gave no indication of when the delayed legislative debate would begin.
Staff members were advised not to go to into work and those already on the premises were told to “stay at their working place until further notice.”
Waiting game: Centre of Hong Kong paralyzed, many thousands on the streets and around legislature to protest extradition law, riot police ready. But debate over law postponed, officially because legislators can’t get in. Protestors think it’s a ruse to get them to leave <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/CBC?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#CBC</a> <a href=”https://t.co/OZgET8ouaB”>pic.twitter.com/OZgET8ouaB</a>
Under its “one-country, two-systems” framework, Hong Kong was supposed to be guaranteed the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years following its handover from British rule in 1997. However, China’s ruling Communist Party has been seen as increasingly reneging on that agreement by forcing through unpopular legal changes.
The government pushed ahead with plans to present the amendments to the legislature on Wednesday despite a weekend protest by hundreds of thousands of people. It was the territory’s largest political demonstration in more than a decade.
A crowd began gathering outside the Legislative Council on Tuesday night, and the U.S. Consulate is warning people to avoid the area, exercise caution and keep a low profile. Some businesses closed for the day, and labour strikes and class boycotts were also called.
The legislation has become a lightning rod for concerns about Beijing’s increasing control over the semi-autonomous territory.
Lam has consistently defended the legislation as necessary to close legal loopholes with other countries and territories. A vote was scheduled on June 20.
Sunday’s protest was widely seen as reflecting growing apprehension about relations with the Communist Party-ruled mainland, whose leader, Xi Jinping, has said he has zero tolerance for those demanding greater self-rule for Hong Kong.
Critics believe the extradition legislation would put Hong Kong residents at risk of being entrapped in China’s judicial system, in which opponents of Communist Party rule have been charged with economic crimes or ill-defined national security offences, and would not be guaranteed free trials.
Lam, who cancelled her regular question and answer session on Wednesday, said the government has considered concerns from the private sector and altered the bill to improve human rights safeguards. She said without the changes, Hong Kong would risk becoming a haven for fugitives.
She emphasized that extradition cases would be decided by Hong Kong courts.
Ronny Tong Ka-wah, a lawyer and member of Lam’s administration advisory committee, said Sunday’s protest showed a lack of trust in Hong Kong’s administration, partly because Lam was selected by a small number of electors rather than by popular vote. However, China’s patience with Hong Kong’s demands has its limits, Tong said.
“We need to gain the trust and confidence of Beijing so they can allow us the freedom of political reform,” Tong said. “They don’t want to see Hong Kong as a base of subversion. And I’m sorry, we’re doing exactly that.”
Opponents of the proposed extradition amendments say the changes would significantly compromise Hong Kong’s legal independence, long viewed as one of the crucial differences between the territory and mainland China.
Hong Kong currently limits extraditions to jurisdictions with which it has existing agreements and to others on an individual basis. China has been excluded from those agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.
The mainland’s ruling Communist Party exerts influence on the Hong Kong government. Lam was elected in 2017 by a committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites and was widely seen as the Communist Party’s favoured candidate.
The Legislative Council includes a sizeable camp of pro-Beijing lawmakers.
Those in Hong Kong who anger China’s central government have come under greater pressure since Xi came to power in 2012.
The detention of several Hong Kong booksellers in late 2015 intensified worries about the erosion of Hong Kong’s rule of law. The booksellers vanished before resurfacing in police custody in mainland China. Among them, Swedish citizen Gui Minhai is currently being investigated on charges of leaking state secrets after he sold gossipy books about Chinese leaders.
In April, nine leaders of a 2014 pro-democracy protest movement known as the “Umbrella Revolution” were convicted on public nuisance and other charges.
In May, Germany confirmed it had granted asylum to two people from Hong Kong who, according to media reports, were activists fleeing tightening restrictions at home. It was the first known case in recent years of a Western government accepting political refugees from Hong Kong.