Hong Kong – Police here fired tear gas, pepper spray and high-pressure water hoses against protesters who had massed outside government headquarters Wednesday to oppose a government plan to allow extraditions to China. The bill has become a lightning rod for concerns over greater Chinese control and erosion of civil liberties in the semiautonomous territory and former British colony.
CBS News correspondent Ramy Inocencio, who was covering the protest, was among those tear gassed:
The Reuters news service and AFP reported the demonstrators numbered in the tens of thousands. AFP said they paralyzed the center of the city state.
There was no word of any injuries.
The afternoon violence marked a major escalation in Hong Kong's biggest political crisis in years.
It came after protesters earlier in the day forced the delay of a legislative debate over the bill that would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be sent for trial in mainland China.
The overwhelmingly young crowd had overflowed onto a major downtown road as they overturned barriers and tussled with police outside the government building. But when some appeared to have breached the police cordon around offices of the government and Legislative Council in Hong Kong's Wanchai district, police responded, also firing nonlethal projectiles.
Earlier, a curt government statement said the session scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. would be "changed to a later time." Officials gave no indication of when that would be and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam canceled a scheduled news briefing.
The delay appeared to have been at least a temporary victory for the bill's opponents, whose protests are the largest since pro-democracy demonstrations closed down parts of the Asian financial center for more than three months in 2014. Some businesses closed for the day, and labor strikes and class boycotts were called.
The protests are a challenge to China's ruling Communist Party and President Xi Jinping, who has in the past said he would not tolerate Hong Kong being used as a base to challenge the party's authority. But they are also enabling young Hong Kongers to vent. They feel alienated by a political process dominated by the territory's economic elite.
Protesters said they hoped the blockade would persuade Lam's administration to shelve the proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance.
"We want the government to just set the legislation aside and not bring it back," said a protester who gave only his first name, Marco, to avoid possible repercussions from authorities.
Another protester, who gave her name only as King, also out of fear of repercussions, said the protest was a watershed moment for Hong Kong's young generation, who face difficult job prospects and skyrocketing housing prices.
"We have to stand up for our rights or they will be taken away," she said.
Dressed in black T-shirts and jeans, many protesters appeared undaunted by demands to disperse from police. Protesters clashed with police intermittently throughout the day, occasionally hurling traffic cones and other objects over metal traffic barriers. Police initially responded with pepper spray, which was met with unfurled parasols as used in 2014 pro-democracy protests that became known as the Umbrella Movement and Occupy Movement.
The demonstrators also appeared mindful of Beijing's growing use of electronic surveillance such as facial recognition technology to build dossiers on those it considers politically unreliable, with many donning surgical or anti-pollution masks to hide their features, as well as to safeguard against tear gas.
Such protests are never tolerated in mainland China, and Hong Kong residents can face travel bans and other repercussions if they cross the border.
In a statement read to reporters, Hong Kong Chief Secretary for Administration Mathew Cheung urged the protesters to clear the streets.
"I would also like to ask the people in this gathering to stay calm and leave the scene as soon as possible and not to commit any crime," he added.
Under its "one country, two systems" framework, Hong Kong was supposed to be guaranteed the right to retain its own social, legal and political systems for 50 years following its handover from British rule in 1997. However, China's ruling Communist Party has been seen as increasingly reneging on that agreement by forcing through unpopular legal changes.
The government pushed ahead with plans to present the amendments to the legislature on Wednesday despite a weekend protest by hundreds of thousands of people that was the territory's largest political demonstration in more than a decade.
Lam has consistently defended the legislation as necessary to close legal loopholes with other countries and territories. A vote was scheduled for June 20.
The protests are widely seen as reflecting growing apprehension about relations with the Communist Party-ruled mainland, where Xi has said he has zero tolerance for those demanding greater self-rule for Hong Kong.
Critics believe the extradition legislation would put Hong Kong residents at risk of being entrapped in China's judicial system, in which opponents of Communist Party rule have been charged with economic crimes or ill-defined national security offenses, and would not be guaranteed free trials.
Lam said the government has considered concerns from the private sector and altered the bill to improve human rights safeguards. She said without the changes, Hong Kong would risk becoming a haven for fugitives.
She emphasized that extradition cases would be decided by Hong Kong courts.
Opponents of the proposed extradition amendments say the changes would significantly compromise Hong Kong's legal independence, long viewed as one of the crucial differences between the territory and mainland China.