Hong Kong protesters vow to keep fighting extradition law
HONG KONG - 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 neighborhood 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 fired tear gas and used pepper spray on protesters who had massed outside the government building overnight Tuesday and began pressing against the police early Wednesday.
The overwhelmingly young crowd had overflowed onto a major downtown road as they overturned barriers and tussled with police. But when some appeared to have breached a cordon around the building, the police launched their response.
At a brief news conference held as the chaos swirled just outside, Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung said the "serious clashes" forced police to use pepper spray, bean bag rounds, rubber bullets, and tear gas. He added that police were still counting how many people were injured.
Officers were also hurt, some seriously, by rocks, bottles, traffic cones, metal barricades and other items thrown by protesters.
Lo called the demonstration a riot. That could mean long jail terms for anyone arrested, adding to fears that Hong Kong's government is using public disturbance laws to intimidate protesters.
"We condemn such irresponsible behavior," Lo said. "There's no need to hurt innocent people to express your opinions," he said, adding that people should not "do anything they will regret for the rest of their lives."
Police spokesman Gong Weng Chun defended the use of tear gas and other nonlethal weapons, saying officers wouldn't have had to do so if they weren't facing a threat that could lead to serious injuries or deaths.
A curt government statement said a scheduled 11 a.m. legislative session would be "changed to a later time." Officials gave no indication of when that would be, and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam canceled a news briefing.
Some businesses also closed for the day, and labor strikes and class boycotts were called.
The protests by the bill's opponents are the largest since pro-democracy demonstrations closed down parts of the Asian financial center for more than three months in 2014.
The demonstrations pose a challenge to Xi, who has said he would not tolerate Hong Kong being used as a base to question the ruling Communist Party's authority. But they are also giving a voice to the young in the territory who feel alienated by a political process dominated by the economic elite.
The state of the legislative process for the bill remained unclear following the violence, which had largely ended by about 5 p.m. after police herded demonstrators across a pedestrian bridge. Traffic in one of the busiest parts of the city remained blocked, however, and several hundred protesters seemed in no hurry to leave.
The protesters said they hoped the blockade would lead to Lam's administration shelving the measure.
"We want the government to just set the legislation aside and not bring it back," said a protester who gave only his first name, Marco, because he feared possible repercussions from authorities.
Another protester, who gave her name only as King, also out of fear of repercussions, said the protest was a watershed moment for Hong Kong's young generation.
"We have to stand up for our rights or they will be taken away," she said.
Dressed in black T-shirts and jeans, many protesters appeared undaunted by police demands to disperse. The demonstrators also appeared mindful of Beijing's growing use of electronic surveillance such as facial recognition technology to build dossiers on those it considers politically unreliable, and many of them wore surgical masks to hide their features as well as reduce the effects of tear gas.