Riot police clashed with protesters as they tried to rush Hong Kong’s main legislative buildings and blocked traffic.
Hong Kong’s legislative council was prepared Wednesday to debate a law that would permit Hong Kong authorities to arrest people and send them to face trial in other countries that lacked extradition treaties with the territory — which would include mainland China.
Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous territory, and critics see this bill as empowering Beijing to further cement its authority over Hong Kong and stifle democracy there.
Hundreds of Hong Kong demonstrators storm a key road next to government offices as protests mount against an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial. Live feed of the protests: https://t.co/qHnHkcnpV0 pic.twitter.com/q7TUBrDAsx
— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) June 12, 2019
As the protesters surrounded the legislative buildings, riot police responded with force, pushing back protesters by wielding batons and firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and beanbags at the crowds.
Clouds of tear gas hang in the air in Hong Kong’s main biz district. Police have fired off several rounds to push back protesters who keep charging at the Legislative Council Complex. It’s crazy to think of this place as a financial center right now. Feels like a combat zone pic.twitter.com/2PBEnALyON
— Alexandra Stevenson (@jotted) June 12, 2019
Demonstrators wore face masks and shielded themselves with umbrellas against the onslaught as they pressed against police barricades.
Ed, a 26-year-old media professional who protested on Wednesday, told me through WhatsApp that he was nervous about staring down law enforcement. Still, he said, “We Hong Kongers believe we can’t fear the extreme government, we have the responsibility to protect our family and homeland.” He added that they wanted to stop Beijing from stifling freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and other human rights.
Authorities accused the protesters of hurling objects — including bricks, bottles, and spare umbrellas — at police.
At least 22 protesters were injured in the clashes, according to media reports.
Hong Kong police chief Stephen Lo described the protests as a “riot,” according to the Hong Kong Free Press. He confirmed that police deployed tear gas and rubber bullets, but said they had to do so otherwise “protesters would have used metal bars to stab our colleagues.”
The area near the legislative buildings had been cleared by the afternoon (local time), according to media reports, but protesters were still gathered in other parts of Hong Kong’s central business district.
Chloe, a 19-year-old waitress who joined the protests early this morning, said at one point, she found herself at the front lines, where she looked back and saw a “sea of people.”
She said some of the protesters compared this stand against the law with The Avengers: Endgame. “It does kind of feel like the ‘end game’ for us,” she said. “If this doesn’t go well, if this doesn’t succeed, then we just don’t know if we will ever get a win again.”
“If we don’t win, I’m not sure people can hold on to that tiny hope,” she added. “That hope might just be gone.”
What you need to know about these protests
The protests on Wednesday came after as many as 1 million demonstrators gathered Sunday in Hong Kong to push back against this extradition bill that critics see as a direct threat to the territory’s democracy and another example of Beijing’s encroachment.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, is a quasi-independent city-state. In 1997, Britain handed it back over to China on the condition that the territory be allowed to govern itself for the next 50 years.
But that’s been increasingly under threat, as Beijing wants to bring Hong Kong closer into its orbit.
“In recent years, the Hong Kong government has disqualified elected lawmakers, banned activists from running for office, prohibited a political party, jailed pro-democracy leaders, expelled a senior foreign journalist, and looked the other way when Beijing kidnapped its adversaries in Hong Kong,” Ben Bland, a Hong Kong expert at the Lowy Institute in Australia, told Vox’s Alex Ward this week.
Demonstrators see this extradition bill as another example of that. Hong Kong doesn’t have a formal extradition treaty with mainland China, but this amendment would allow Hong Kong’s chief executive (the city-state’s governor, basically) to transfer arrestees on a case-by-case basis to face trial in China — and it would apply retroactively.
Critics fear this will give Beijing the ability to arbitrarily target anyone it deems a threat, and that there will be little check on the chief executive’s power, as she was handpicked by the government in Beijing.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has said the extradition bill is intended to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a safe haven for fugitives. She’s refused to back down, even in the wake of mass unrest.
On Wednesday, she criticized the protesters, comparing them to “stubborn children.”
“It is very clear that this is no longer a peaceful assembly, but a public and organized riot,” Lam told local TV, according to the New York Times. “And it is impossible that this is action that loves and protects Hong Kong.”
The Chinese government has basically called the uproar over the extradition law fake news. “I can clearly tell you that is a fallacy being spread to deceive people and create panic,” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said, according to the Guardian.
But the extradition bill has reinvigorated activism in Hong Kong, and protesters remain defiant. Some have framed it as a revival of 2014’s Umbrella Movement, when Hong Kong demonstrators staged a 79-day pro-democracy sit-in. The movement got its name from the protesters who brandished umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas, a scene repeated at the protests on Wednesday.
”At the end of the Umbrella Movement, didn’t we say, ‘we will be back’? And now, we are back!” opposition lawmaker Claudia Mo told a crowd of protesters outside the legislative building, according to CNN.
Wednesday’s groundswell of opposition was a victory for the protesters, as the government decided to delay the debate over the bill; many doubt opponents will ultimately be able to deter the bill’s passage, though.
But demonstrators have vowed to keep trying.
Today’s protest is just the beginning, Ed, the 26-year-old protester, told me. “Since the government refuse[s] to take down the law, protest must still go on.”
Ed added that he still thinks it will be easy for the government to pass the law. But if it does, he said, “more extreme protest must happen.”