Hong Kong police declare China extradition protest 'a riot' as rubber bullets and tear gas fired at crowd

HONG KONG — Tens of thousands of demonstrators stormed key Hong Kong roads in the face of tear gas and rubber bullets Wednesday, after days of heightened tensions over the government’s plan to push forward a bill that would allow extraditions to China.

It was the second time in five years that Hong Kong’s main roads have been occupied in defiance of Beijing’s tightening control on the semiautonomous city. Hong Kong’s Harcourt Road, a major thoroughfare tying the city together, was the scene of massive street battles between the young protesters and police throughout the afternoon until the rally was dispersed by evening.

Though the tens of thousands protesters were eventually driven off, they did apparently force president of the legislature to postpone the scheduled second reading of the controversial bill in the legislature. A final vote on the measure is expected by June 20.

The protesters, many of them young people dressed in black, started surrounding the building that houses Hong Kong’s main government offices, the Legislative Council, late Tuesday. Some pitched tents in a nearby park and on sidewalks, spending the night despite sporadic rain showers.

Throughout the day, the protesters, many wearing goggles and yellow construction helmets, pushed against police lines to force them back until police deployed tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons in the late afternoon.

By evening the area around the legislature was deserted, but protests continued elsewhere in the central district.
The government has refused to scrap the extradition bill even after an enormous protest over the weekend, which organizers said brought more than 1 million people into the streets. Critics of the bill fear that it would effectively apply China’s justice system to the former British colony.

Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam said in a television interview Wednesday that she “never had self-doubt because of this issue” and would continue to pursue it.

She compared young protesters to a child who is given too much leniency by his mother and then indulges in headstrong behavior. “He will feel regret: ‘Why was my mother not tough with me?’ ” she said, criticizing herself for being too tolerant with the protesters.

Lam appeared to grow emotional when asked to respond to claims that she had “sold out” Hong Kong.

“I was born here, raised here like every other Hong Konger. For my love of this place I have made no small amount of sacrifices,” she said.

China’s central government “will continue to support” Hong Kong’s government in passing the extradition law, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday.

Any actions that harm Hong Kong are opposed by mainstream Hong Kong public opinion, Geng said, and he urged the United States to speak and act with caution regarding Hong Kong.
Earlier Wednesday morning, when workers would typically be heading into towering office buildings that define the city’s skyline, thousands of demonstrators streamed onto the major roads near the Legislative Council complex. The swelling group removed metal barricades set up by police to keep them from the government buildings, commandeering them to block key intersections and expressway ramps. Other barricades were used as makeshift ladders to assist people climbing over large concrete road dividers.

“We all, myself included, we underestimated people power in Hong Kong,” pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo told protesters on Wednesday. “We in particular underestimated the young people power,” she added, calling on Lam to drop the extradition bill.

[China can’t smash Hong Kong’s spirit]

Protesters said they wanted to send a clear message: that Hong Kong will continue to fight to the end against any move to extend Beijing’s dominance into their unique territory.

“We are trying to tell the government that the more they suppress us, the more we will fight back,” said Justin Tang, 25, an airline employee who was sitting on a road that would normally be filled with Hong Kong’s red-and-white taxis and speeding buses.

“Being the last city in China that is able to do that, we are going to hold on to that right,” he said.

Before the tear gas and clashes started in the afternoon, a sense of order emerged at the sprawling protest. At nearby pharmacies and convenience stores, demonstrators bought boxes of surgical masks to hand out so those pouring into the protest site could cover their faces and mask their identities.

Some demonstrators had even come prepared with umbrellas, harking back to the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests in which young demonstrators had to shield themselves against police pepper spray. Those protesters occupied the streets for 79 days, calling for universal suffrage for Hong Kong — demands that were not met. After a lull in activism, the extradition bill has re-energized residents and galvanized a wide cross-section of Hong Kong.
Riot police turned downtown Hong Kong into a tear-gas covered battlefield as they pushed back against protesters who tried to storm Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. The protesters, angry at an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial, hurled bricks, bottles and umbrellas as they clashed with the police, as the demonstrations intensified on Wednesday afternoon.

At least 20 people were injured, local news media reported, based on data from the city’s hospitals.

A line of protesters, many of them young people in black T-shirts, repeatedly rushed toward a ring of heavily armored police, only to be repelled by the officers who lashed out with blows, rubber bullets, beanbag rounds, pepper spray and tear gas.

[What caused the protests? We took a look at the proposed extradition bill that has outraged residents.]

During their closest encounters, only a thin metal barrier separated the two groups as the protesters’ front line slowly inched closer to the source of their anger — Hong Kong’s legislature.

One police officer held a giant red sign warning protesters: “Stop charging or we will use force.”

Many of the city’s lawmakers, from both the pro-democracy camp that opposes the contentious extradition legislation at the heart of the protests and the pro-Beijing majority that supports it, failed to arrive at the council for a scheduled debate on Wednesday morning, after protesters surrounded the complex and blocked traffic. The council later said the debate was postponed until further notice.

The police’s use of tear gas and rubber bullets represented a turning point in their response to the demonstrations, and reflected the government’s determination to keep the territory’s legislature from being overrun by the people.

The police have not acknowledged using rubber bullets against protesters for decades and when tear gas was used five years ago against a student democracy protest, it incited public fury that brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets. That movement turned into a sustained occupation of several commercial districts for months in Hong Kong known as the Umbrella Movement, referring to the shield of choice used to fend off police pepper spray.

By late Wednesday afternoon, the area immediately adjacent to the council had been cleared of protesters, but tear gas hung in the air in the city’s main financial and business district.

So much tear gas was used that commuters at nearby subway stations and people in shopping malls were coughing and tearing up, and many sought medical attention.

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