Hong Kong protesters vow to keep fighting extradition law
Police use rubber bullets, tear gas outside government headquarters
Following a day of sit-ins, tear gas and clashes with police, Hong Kong students and civil rights activists vowed Wednesday to keep protesting a proposed extradition bill that has become a lightning rod for concerns over greater Chinese control and erosion of civil liberties in the former British colony.
The violence marked a major escalation of the biggest political crisis in years for the semi-autonomous Chinese territory and forced the delay of legislative debate on the contentious bill.
College student Louis Wong said he considered the blockade of government headquarters and the Legislative Council a success, because it appeared to prevent Beijing loyalists from advancing amendments to a pair of laws that would make it easier to send suspected criminals to China.
"This is a public space and the police have no right to block us from staying here," Wong said, surveying a garbage-strewn intersection in the Admiralty neighbourhood that had been blocked off by security forces after protesters broke through a police cordon and entered the government complex.
"We'll stay until the government drops this law and [Chinese President] Xi Jinping gives up on trying to turn Hong Kong into just another city in China like Beijing and Shanghai," he said.
Police 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, taking action after a group of masked protesters charged onto the roads in the Admiralty district and started throwing objects, including metal barriers.
Lo called the situation a riot, and said "a very dangerous action that could kill someone." He also said several people, including some officers, had been injured, and he urged protesters to return home.
The Hong Kong Hospital Authority said at least 72 people were taken to hospitals from the protests, two in serious condition.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada is following the proposal closely and is concerned about the effect it could have on a large number of Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, as well as business confidence and Hong Kong's international reputation.
She urged the Hong Kong government to "listen to its people and its many friends around the world" before making any changes to the bill.
Amnesty International has condemned what it called excessive force by Hong Kong police against largely peaceful protesters demonstrating against a proposed extradition bill, saying it violates international law and is likely to lead to worsening violence.
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.
Watch as police attend to an injured protester:
Martin Lee, a lawyer, pro-democracy activist and the founding chair of the Democratic Party of Hong Kong, said Hong Kong's chief executive has a "cold, cold heart" for not considering the message from demonstrators of last weekend's massive protest against the proposed extradition law.
The moment you are transferred to mainland China, they make you confess before a TV camera.- Martin Lee, pro-democracy politician
"I'm afraid our chief executive Carrie Lam has completely polarized our society. She has broken so many hearts today. These are young people in their teens, fighting for democracy and defending Hong Kong and hoping to stop Hong Kong from turning from an international financial centre into another Chinese city," Lee told CBC News.
He said people in the former British colony don't trust the courts or prisons in mainland China, and neither should the roughly 300,000 Canadians who are working and living in Hong Kong.
"The moment you are transferred [as a suspect] to mainland China, they make you confess before a TV camera. We have seen too much of this," Lee said.
The U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong said American citizens should avoid areas of Hong Kong 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, who had massed outside the government building overnight Tuesday and began pressing against the police early Wednesday.
"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 protest would persuade 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.
A 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.
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."
Some businesses closed for the day, and labour strikes and class boycotts were called.
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>—@sasapetricic
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.
Lam has consistently defended the legislation as necessary to close legal loopholes with other countries and territories. A vote was scheduled on June 20.
"There's no urgency at all, and they are rushing it," pro-democracy politician Martin Lee said.
"They want the whole thing to be finished next Thursday in Hong Kong. They want to do it as quickly as possible."
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.
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 legislators.
With files from CBC News