Clashes erupted again on the streets of Hong Kong Wednesday, as police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters demonstrating against a controversial extradition law.
Wednesday’s protests drew tens of thousands of people on to the streets, shutting down central Hong Kong for the second time in four days in opposition to the proposed law, which would allow China to extradite people from Hong Kong to the mainland. Sporadic clashes continued into Wednesday night as police attempted to clear protesters from the streets.
The protesters, many of them students, had peacefully occupied the streets surrounding the Legislative Council (LegCo) in central Hong Kong, until violence broke out just after 3 p.m. (3 a.m. ET), the deadline protesters had issued the government to drop the bill. In chaotic scenes, police responded with rubber bullets and tear gas as some charged them with umbrellas and threw plastic bottles.
By that time, the protesters had secured a small win: LegCo officials announced they were postponing the second reading of the bill to an unspecified date. Still, it is likely only a temporary reprieve.
Despite the mass opposition to the bill, which drew more than a million protesters on to the streets Sunday, analysts say they are unlikely to force the pro-Beijing government to abandon its plans.
Analysts from IHS Markit said the bill’s strong backing from Beijing meant it was likely to eventually pass, even at the cost of escalating protests, and that Hong Kong’s police force was likely to be able to prevent the protests from escalating out of hand.
While analysts say the protesters face a near-impossible battle in pressuring the pro-Beijing government to drop its plans, the protesters, drawing from the lessons of a failed previous protest movement, are determined not to back down. This sets up the prospect of a protracted standoff in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
The protest movement is already shaping up as a rebirth of the so-called umbrella movement of 2014, when pro-democracy protesters occupied central Hong Kong for 79 days. Many protesters Wednesday carried umbrellas, using them to shield themselves from police pepper spray, in a reprise of the scenes that gave the 2014 movement its name.
“Didn’t we say at the end of the umbrella movement we would be back?” pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo said before a crowd of supporters. “Now we are back!”
Under the proposed law, Hong Kong residents and foreigners living or travelling through the city would be at risk of deportation if sought by mainland Chinese authorities. The bill has attracted widespread opposition from those who fear it would compromise the independence of Hong Kong’s legal system, and pave the way for Beijing to clamp down on dissent in the city by seeking extraditions for political reasons.
Pledges from Hong Kong officials that its courts would have the final say over extradition requests, and that extradition requests on political and religious grounds would be refused, have done little to assuage those fears.
Under the agreement reached when Britain handed the former colony back to China in 1997, Hong Kong was to be governed under the “one country, two systems” principle, maintaining an independent legislature and judiciary, and safeguarding certain human rights and freedoms, including freedom of speech and assembly. But Hong Kongers are increasingly concerned about Beijing’s tightening grip on their city’s supposedly safeguarded political freedoms and distinct identity.
Beijing reiterated its strong backing for the bill Wednesday, with foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang claiming that the protests weren’t supported by most Hong Kongers.
“Any actions that harm Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability are opposed by mainstream public opinion in Hong Kong,” he told reporters.
Human rights group Amnesty International condemned the actions of police Wednesday, accusing them of using excessive force against the protesters.
"Police have a duty to maintain public order, but in doing so they may use force only when strictly necessary. Hong Kong’s police have today failed to live up to this standard," said the group's Hong Kong director, Man-Kei Tam. "Tear gas and projectiles like rubber bullets are notoriously inaccurate and indiscriminate, and can result in serious injury and even death."
Cover: Demonstrators react to a cloud of tear gas near the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Wednesday, June 12, 2019. Hong Kong police fired tear gas and high-pressure water hoses against protesters who had massed outside government headquarters Wednesday in opposition to a proposed extradition bill that has become a lightning rod for concerns over greater Chinese control and erosion of civil liberties in the semiautonomous territory. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)