Clouds of tear gas billowed over the heart of one of Asia’s most important financial centres Wednesday, as cordons of riot police forcibly cleared a mass of protesters from the streets around Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.
The sounds of megaphone warnings and gunfire echoed through the city amid hours of clashes between police and protesters, who had gathered to demand the withdrawal of an extradition bill that would ease the way for Chinese authorities to seize from Hong Kong people it calls criminals. Early in the day, lawmakers postponed a scheduled 11 a.m. debate of the bill, saying it would resume at another time. In an indication that unrest will continue in the city, the Hong Kong government said its Central Government Offices would be closed Thursday and Friday, citing security reasons.
But the prospect of delays did nothing to calm crowds that continued to grow in size throughout the day Wednesday, demanding that the bill be completely abandoned.
Police said they arrested 11 people on charges such as assaulting police officers and unlawful assembly. Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung said 22 officers had been injured. Hospital officials said they were treating 79 people for protest-related injuries as of Thursday morning.
By 3 p.m., protesters chanting “withdraw” began to close in on entrances to the Legislative Council, some inspired by the 2014 Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, in which student demonstrators occupied the Executive Yuan in Taipei.
Police in Hong Kong initially withdrew inside the high metal fences of the legislative building, before returning to the streets with a show of force against the protesters, who were armed with little more than construction helmets, umbrellas and, for one man, the protection of pink yoga mats taped to his forearms. With volleys of tear gas, pepper paintballs, water cannons and beanbag bullets, police succeeded in pushing demonstrators away from the city’s government complex.
Inside the People’s Liberation Army garrison across the street, Chinese soldiers kept watch with gas masks on their faces.
Authorities called what ensued a “riot,” and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, in a televised address Wednesday night, warned that violent protest “is not an act that shows love for Hong Kong.”
Demonstrators, however, accused police of using violence that left some bloodied and many furious, accusing authorities of heavy-handed tactics that would only serve to encourage more people to take to the streets.
“They were not trying to disperse us. They were trying to basically kill us,” said Nathan Law, a former politician who is one of the best-known youth activists in the city. Protesters threw water bottles, helmets and umbrellas at police. Mr. Law accused police of responding with rubber bullets aimed at people’s heads.
Rather than stamp out anger over the extradition bill, those actions will “arouse a larger public anger. Because the police were just way too much,” Mr. Law said. Indeed, by Wednesday evening, a large number of protesters continued to amass in other downtown areas of Hong Kong, shutting down large parts of the city to traffic.
For many, the anger and the numbers of people on the streets stirred memories of the 2014 Umbrella Movement protest, in which protesters demanding greater democratic freedoms occupied parts of the city for some 75 days.
“Didn’t we say at the end of the Umbrella Movement we would be back?” Legislator Claudia Mo said Wednesday.
“Now we are back!” she said.
Yet the decisive police action on Wednesday also created a sense of fear. Amnesty International criticized police, with Man-kei Tam, the group’s director in Hong Kong, saying: “The ugly scene of police using tear gas and pepper spray against overwhelmingly peaceful protesters is a violation of international law.”
In a statement, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said the protests “demonstrate the deep concern among the people of Hong Kong about their future.” She said Canada “remains concerned about the potential effect these proposals may have on the large number of Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, on business confidence, and on Hong Kong’s international reputation.”
In Metro Vancouver, a number of Hong Kong-born Canadians convened a news conference to condemn the proposed bill and the actions of police.
Victor Ho, former editor of Sing Tao Daily in Canada, urged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and members of Parliament to take action to ensure the safety of Canadians in Hong Kong.
“What [are] the measures to safeguard their personal security if the amendment is passed by the legislative council?” said Mr. Ho.
Protesters in Hong Kong circulated video of men bleeding from the head, one gasping for breath. At least 72 were injured, two seriously, local hospital authorities said.
“I don’t think any one of us is not scared,” one of those protesters, Isaac Ng, 22, said as he fled waves of tear gas. “Every one of us is scared. But we just need to do what’s right.”
The sight of young protesters fleeing police baton charges left Demi Tam, 22, feeling as if she was witnessing the city, a former British colony that values freedom of speech, “becoming China.”
“Shame on the government,” she said, as she watched an ambulance pass. Moments later, police dragged away a protester after he fell motionless onto the ground after a round of beanbag-bullet fire. The man later sat up.
“They have all the weapons and we have nothing. They shoot us for nothing. We haven’t attacked them,” said Jemma Yu, 22.
Jasmine Chan, 22, a student doctor who volunteered at a first-aid station, likened it to “battlefield” medicine.
Police, however, accused protesters of damaging police cars, attacking with sharpened iron sticks and bricks and using “violent measures to storm the Legislative Council complex.”
“Police had to escalate the use of force after repeated warnings were ignored,” Hong Kong police said in a statement.
“Issues involving the mainland and Hong Kong have been used by some people to cause conflict, but intense confrontation is absolutely not the solution,” Ms. Lam, the Chief Executive, said Wednesday. “If radical and violent means can achieve their aims, these scenes will only get worse."
Earlier in the day, Legislative Council member Alvin Yeung came to the site of the protest to plead for peace, standing for an hour in a small gap between protesters and police.
“We were asking to speak directly to the most senior rank commanding officer on site to give the person the clearest message that do not use force on these innocent Hong Kong people,” Mr. Yeung said. “They do not have to bear this responsibility. It’s a political issue.”
He came with Jeremy Tam, another council member, who had a simple message: “As soon as they withdraw this bill, all these people will be gone.”
Social workers, church groups, student associations and workers alliances had all called for a general strike to allow people to protest against the extradition bill on Wednesday.
But most of the crowd was made up of young men and women, university students on summer break. They understood prospects were slim that they could persuade the government to alter course on the extradition bill, which has the backing of Ms. Lam, as well as Chinese leadership in Beijing.
“I don’t think the government will change their mind. They will just find reasons to push it through,” said Stanley King, 19. But, he said, “today we stood up” and “let the government know its citizens still know what is right and what is wrong.”
With a report from Xiao Xu in Vancouver and a file from the Associated Press