Police use rubber bullets as Hong Kong protesters vow 'no retreat'

Verna Yu in Hong Kong, Lily Kuo in Beijing, and Oliver Holmes

Riot police have used rubber bullets, batons and teargas against people in Hong Kong protesting against a controversial extradition bill that would tighten Beijing’s grip on the semi-autonomous territory.

Unable to drive away the crowds paralysing the downtown business district on Wednesday, authorities were forced to delay a debate over the bill that would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be sent for trial in mainland China.

Protesters worry Beijing will exploit the law to extradite political opponents and activists to the mainland, where they would be subject to a Chinese justice system criticised by human rights activists.

Related: Hong Kong protest: police fire teargas at demonstrators – live

The violence marked an escalation in the biggest political crisis to hit the city in years. After the police crackdown, a group of protesters made a failed attempt to storm government offices. In several cases, crowds charged at armed officers, throwing bottles and other debris.

Hospital authorities told broadcaster RTHK that 72 people had been hospitalised, and two were in a serious condition. Pictures and videos on social media appeared to show people wounded by rubber bullets or bean-bag rounds, which police fired from shotguns.

Demonstrators shut down the main thoroughfare and streets near the legislature, refusing to leave until the authorities retracted the bill. By Wednesday night, hundreds of young protesters were bracing for riot police to disperse the crowds. Others said they would return the next day.

What is the proposed extradition law?

Hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated in Hong Kong against legal changes that would make it easier to extradite people to China. Supporters say the amendments are key to ensuring the city does not become a criminal refuge, but critics worry Beijing will use the law to extradite political opponents and others to China. Under the amended law, those accused of offences punishable by seven years or more in prison could be extradited.

Who is supporting the change?

The government claims the push to change the law, which would also apply to Taiwan and Macau, stems from the killing last year of a Hong Kong woman while she was in Taiwan with her boyfriend. Authorities in Taiwan suspect the woman’s boyfriend, who remains in Hong Kong, but cannot try him because no extradition agreement is in place. 

Officials have promised to safeguard against abuses, pledging that no one at risk of political or religious persecution will be sent to the mainland. Suspects who could face the death penalty would not be extradited.

Hong Kong officials have repeatedly said the bill has not come from the central government in Beijing. However, Beijing has voiced its backing for the changes.

Why are Hong Kongers so angry?

Many Hong Kongers fear the proposed extradition law will be used by authorities to target political enemies. They worry the new legislation spells the end of the “one country, two systems” policy, eroding the civil rights enjoyed by Hong Kong residents since the handover of sovereignty from the UK to China in 1997.

Many attending the protests said they could not trust China as it had often used non-political crimes to target government critics, and said they also feared Hong Kong officials would not be able to reject Beijing’s requests. Legal professionals have also expressed concern over the rights of those sent across the border to be tried. The conviction rate in Chinese courts is as high as 99%. Arbitrary detentions, torture and denial of legal representation of one’s choosing are also common.

Lily Kuo in Beijing and Verna Yu in Hong Kong

The police chief, Stephen Lo, described the protest as a “riot situation” and claimed officers needed to protect themselves or “protesters would have used metal bars to stab our colleagues”.

The mass gatherings began on Sunday with a march that drew hundreds of thousands of people, and have remained largely non-violent. Asked if the police would ask the Chinese army to help, Lo said: “Definitely not, at this stage.”

Beijing reiterated its support for the extradition law at a press briefing and called rumours that the government would call in the military to clear protests “misinformation”.

A protester reacts as she is tackled by riot police during a massive demonstration outside the legislative council in Hong Kong. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

On the streets of Hong Kong, police held up black banners warning they were prepared to use force.Water cannon was also used against the crowd earlier in the day. Many demonstrators wore white face masks and hard hats to protect themselves.

“The government just wants to scare the young people [by shooting teargas],” a protester, Wong Shan, 80, said. “Some police were even holding rifles. Unlike the 1967 riot, nobody is wrecking shops. They are just voicing their opinions,” he added, referring to riots against British rule in the former colony.

“Hong Kong has become a dangerous place,” said Freeman Yim, 36, a construction worker. “You can just imagine what Hong Kong will become once the law comes in. Everyone has come out, whatever sector they belong to.”

The Hong Kong legislature’s chair, Andrew Leung, planned to limit debate on the extradition bill to 61 hours, meaning it could be put to a vote on 20 June. The chamber is dominated by pro-Beijing politicians, making it almost certain the bill will pass.

Police use pepper spray on demonstrators. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

Protesters fear civil rights and freedoms guaranteed to Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” arrangement, made after Britain returned the colony to China in 1997, will be quickly eroded under the new law. China often uses non-political crimes to prosecute its critics.

The UK prime minister, Theresa May, said it was vital that any new extradition treaty did not violate rights agreed after the British withdrawal, which allowed the territory to maintain a semi-independent local government.

“We are concerned about the potential effects of these proposals, particularly obviously given the large number of British citizens there are in Hong Kong,” she said.

Related: What are the Hong Kong protests about?

One protester, a 55-year-old lab technician who gave his name only as Chan, said: “I am here for Hong Kong, for our next generation.

“We don’t trust China. Rules and laws can be arbitrarily applied and we can see this in Hong Kong already,” he said, citing the recent disqualifications of pro-democracy lawmakers and jailing of the leaders of the 2014 Occupy Central movement.

Observers have started to call this week’s demonstrations “Occupy 2.0”, a reference to 79 days of demonstrations that paralysed the city in 2014, also known as the “umbrella movement”. On Wednesday, protesters built barricades and transported supplies to the frontlines of the protests, including umbrellas to defend against pepper spray used by police.

Hong Kong's democratic struggles since 1997

1 July 1997: Hong Kong, previously a British colony, is returned to China under the framework of "one country, two systems". The "Basic Law" constitution guarantees to protect, for the next 50 years, the democratic institutions that make Hong Kong distinct from Communist-ruled mainland China. 

2003: Hong Kong's leaders introduce legislation that would forbid acts of treason and subversion against the Chinese government. The bill resembles laws used to charge dissidents on the mainland. An estimated half a million people turn out to protest against the bill. As a result of the backlash, further action on the proposal is halted. 

2007: The Basic Law stated that the ultimate aim was for Hong Kong's voters to achieve a complete democracy, but China decides in 2007 that universal suffrage in elections for the chief executive cannot be implemented until 2017. Some lawmakers are chosen by business and trade groups, while others are elected by vote. In a bid to accelerate a decision on universal suffrage, five lawmakers resign. But this act is followed by the adoption of the Beijing-backed electoral changes, which expand the chief executive's selection committee and add more seats for lawmakers elected by direct vote. The legislation divides Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp, as some support the reforms while others say they will only delay full democracy while reinforcing a structure that favors Beijing. 

2014: The Chinese government introduces a bill allowing Hong Kong residents to vote for their leader in 2017, but with one major caveat: the candidates must be approved by Beijing. Pro-democracy lawmakers are incensed by the bill, which they call an example of "fake universal suffrage" and "fake democracy". The move triggers a massive protest as crowds occupy some of Hong Kong's most crowded districts for 70 days. In June 2015, Hong Kong legislators formally reject the bill, and electoral reform stalls. The current chief executive, Carrie Lam, widely seen as the Chinese Communist Party's favored candidate, is hand-picked in 2017 by a 1,200-person committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites. 

2019: Lam pushes amendments to extradition laws that would allow people to be sent to mainland China to face charges. The proposed legislation triggers a huge protest, with organizers putting the turnout at 1 million, and a standoff that forces the legislature to postpone debate on the bills. 

Holding up a sign that read: “scrap China extradition bill”, the pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said to a cheering crowd: “At the end of the umbrella movement didn’t we say we would be back? Now we are back!”

The latest demonstrations began on Tuesday night after an online petition called for 50,000 people to gather from 10pm on Tuesday. Many camped overnight.

Protesters rally against a proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong on Wednesday. Photograph: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Hundreds of businesses closed on Wednesday, and thousands of parents and teachers called for a boycott of work and classes to show their opposition to the proposed bill.

Student unions of seven universities and colleges also said they would boycott classes. Several churches said they would hold meetings to pray for the city’s leadership and peace for Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong aviation industry gathered 1,700 employees’ signatures to demand its union initiate a strike while the union of the New World First Bus company condemned the government for ignoring citizens’ voices and urged drivers to drive slowly on Wednesday. The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which has 190,000 members, also urged its members to stay off work for the day.

Despite the outpouring of opposition Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said she remained determined to pass the law.

Related: Hong Kong protests – in pictures

In a tearful Wednesday morning interview, Lam denied she was “selling out Hong Kong” to Beijing, as protesters have claimed. “I have grown up here with all the Hong Kong people,” she told the broadcaster TVB. “My love for this place has led me to make many personal sacrifices.”

Official Chinese media did not report on the protests on Wednesday and mentions of the protests were scrubbed from Chinese social media platforms. The search term “Let’s go, Hong Kong” or Xianggang jiayou was blocked on the microblogging site Weibo.

Supporters of the bill say it will apply only to those involved in serious crimes, while Beijing has claimed that opposition leaders and “foreign forces” have misled the public.

Observers worry about further protests and public anger if the bill is put to a vote. Dennis Kwok of the Civic party said: “If the bill is put to vote, it will be passed. If Hong Kong people’s peaceful voices are neglected, I cannot imagine how they would channel their anger and disappointment in the Hong Kong and central governments.”

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report