By Timothy McLaughlin / The Washington Post
HONG KONG — Tens of thousands of demonstrators stormed key Hong Kong roads in the face of tear gas and rubber bullets Wednesday, after days of heightened tensions over the government’s plan to push forward a bill that would allow extraditions to China.
It was the second time in five years that Hong Kong’s main roads have been occupied in defiance of Beijing’s tightening control on the semiautonomous city. Hong Kong’s Harcourt Road, a major thoroughfare tying the city together, was the scene of massive street battles between the young protesters and police throughout the afternoon until the rally was dispersed by evening.
Though the tens of thousands protesters were eventually driven off, they did apparently force president of the legislature to postpone the scheduled second reading of the controversial bill in the legislature. A final vote on the measure is expected by June 20.
The protesters, many of them young people dressed in black, started surrounding the building that houses Hong Kong’s main government offices, the Legislative Council, late Tuesday. Some pitched tents in a nearby park and on sidewalks, spending the night despite sporadic rain showers.
Throughout the day, the protesters, many wearing goggles and yellow construction helmets, pushed against police lines to force them back until police deployed tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon in the late afternoon.
By evening the area around the legislature was deserted but protests continued elsewhere in the central district.
The government has refused to scrap the extradition bill even after an enormous protest over the weekend, which organizers said brought more than 1 million people into the streets. Critics of the bill fear that it would effectively apply China’s justice system to the former British colony.
Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam said in a television interview Wednesday that she “never had self doubt because of this issue” and would continue to pursue it.
She compared young protesters to a child given to much leniency by his mother and then indulges in headstrong behavior. “He will feel regret: why was my mother not tough with me,” she said, criticizing herself for being too tolerant with the protesters.
Lam appeared to grow emotional when asked to respond to claims that she had “sold out” Hong Kong.
“I was born here, raised here like every other Hong Konger. For my love of this place I have made no small amount of sacrifices,” she said.
China’s central government said Wednesday it “will continue to support” Hong Kong’s government in passing the extradition law, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a news briefing in Beijing.
Any actions that harm Hong Kong are opposed by mainstream Hong Kong public opinion, Geng said, and he urged the United States to speak and act with caution regarding Hong Kong.
Earlier Wednesday morning, when workers would typically be heading into towering office buildings that define the city’s skyline, thousands of demonstrators streamed onto the major roads near the Legislative Council complex. The swelling group removed metal barricades set up by police to keep them from the government buildings, commandeering them to block key intersections and expressway ramps. Other barricades were used as makeshift ladders to assist people climbing over large concrete road dividers.
“We all, myself included, we underestimated people power in Hong Kong,” pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo told protesters on Wednesday. “We in particular underestimated the young people power,” she added, calling on Lam to drop the extradition bill.
Protesters said they wanted to send a clear message: that Hong Kong will continue to fight to the end against any move to extend Beijing’s dominance into their unique territory.
“We are trying to tell the government that the more they suppress us, the more we will fight back,” said Justin Tang, 25, an airline employee who was sitting on a road that would normally be filled with Hong Kong’s red-and-white taxis and speeding buses.
“Being the last city in China that is able to do that, we are going to hold on to that right,” he said.
Before the tear gas and clashes started in the afternoon, a sense of order emerged at the sprawling protest. At nearby pharmacies and convenience stores, demonstrators bought boxes of surgical masks to hand out so those pouring into the protest site could cover their faces and mask their identities.
Some demonstrators had even come prepared with umbrellas, harking back to the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests in which young demonstrators had to shield themselves against police pepper spray. Those protesters occupied the streets for 79 days, calling for universal suffrage for Hong Kong — demands that were not met. After a lull in activism, the extradition bill has re-energized residents and galvanized a wide cross-section of Hong Kong.
Tang, who said he took part in the Umbrella Movement, and other protesters who spoke to The Washington Post, said they felt better prepared and more organized than in 2014, despite the long odds of changing the government’s position. Demonstrators quickly established points to distribute water, gloves, helmets and boxes of milk tea. People arriving with crates of supplies were met with cheers and applause. Others helped to dress their fellow protesters’ arms in plastic wrap — makeshift protection against the possibility of irritating pepper spray. Demonstrators cleared a path to allow first-aid workers to move quickly through the throngs of people.
Wong, 24, who asked to be identified only by her surname, said she arrived at 6 a.m. to the area around the Legislative Council complex. Wong and a group of university friends handed out food to people walking by, including cups of orange juice purchased from a nearby McDonald’s.
“This is Hong Kong, where I was born, and this is my city. All of us here are protecting our home,” she said. The Chinese government is “invading,” she added, and if the extradition legislation is passed, “everything that was built here will be destroyed.”
By midafternoon, protesters began pushing back the lines of police, who responded with tear gas, scattering hundreds of the demonstrators. Within 15 minutes, however, protesters had regrouped and were again pushing forward, while others rushed to pass supplies to those near the police.
Police soon attacked with more tear gas, sending a huge cloud into the gathered crowd and clearing large sections of the road and bridge that had been occupied since the morning. Protesters then counterattacked and hurled umbrellas, bottles and helmets at the police, who repeatedly charged them in an attempt to disperse the protest.
By early Wednesday evening police effectively cleared Harcourt Road. Broken helmets, water bottles and discarded masks were strewn across the road and remnants of tear gas still wafted through the office buildings and shopping centers.
Protesters sat in knots flushing their eyes with water and coughing from the after effects of the gas.
On a pedestrian walkway, a crowd gathered as an older woman carrying a yellow umbrella in the rain berated police using a microphone.
One 29-year-old protester who asked not to be identified said he was frustrated by how the government wasn’t taking their demands seriously and the way it just cleared the streets.
“I feel sad obviously,” he said. “but it was good to see the people of Hong Kong work as team and help each other.”
The full-scale street battles marked a dramatic escalation from the clashes that began early Monday, when police fought with a small group of protesters around the Legislative Council offices before pursuing them on an hours-long cat-and-mouse-style chase through the city.
Hong Kong, a crucial global financial hub, was handed back to China in 1997 after more than a century of British colonial rule. Under the handover agreement, China promised that the territory would remain politically independent, able to enact its own laws, and would keep its judicial and immigration systems and its economic framework.
But the territory’s autonomy has been eroding at a hastening pace for years, and critics say the extradition measure could be the final nail in the coffin: the effective end of the “one country, two systems” framework, by extending mainland law into Hong Kong. The extradition bill would allow fugitives to be repatriated to countries with which Hong Kong does not have an extradition agreement, including China.
Lam, the chief executive, warned protesters Tuesday to avoid taking any “radical actions.” Minor tweaks to the bill she has offered up have failed to placate its numerous critics, and she has vowed to press ahead with the legislation despite calls for her resignation.
“I hope schools, parents, organizations, businesses and unions consider things thoroughly before advocating any radical actions,” Lam told reporters Tuesday. “What good would it do to Hong Kong society … and our young people?”
Despite that warning, hundreds of small businesses closed Wednesday, and labor unions called strikes in a defiant show of opposition.
Conrad Wu was one of the first business owners to announce that he would be shutting down. The owner of Call4Van, a moving van hailing service with about 300 drivers, Wu said he was frustrated with the government’s insistence on pushing ahead with the bill after the march Sunday.
“The response we received was ‘I don’t give a damn,’” he said.
Wu expressed the widely held fear that the passing of the bill would undermine the “one country, two systems” framework and stamp out political autonomy in Hong Kong.
“I truly believe we need to do whatever it takes to prevent this from happening,” he said.
Tang, the airline worker, said he was not surprised by the government’s refusal to back down but was still angered by it.
“The reaction is what we expected because Carrie Lam is not elected by the people and is just a puppet of Beijing,” he said. “It makes you really wonder who runs the Hong Kong government. Is it Hong Kong or is it Beijing?”
The Washington Post’s Jeanne Whalen, Lyric Li and Yuan Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.