Protests in Hong Kong against a proposed law that would allow people to be extradited to mainland China turned violent on Wednesday afternoon, with police firing rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray to disperse crowds that had surrounded the city’s main government compound, according to Asia.nikkei.com reports.
Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority told Nikkei that 72 were injured as of Wednesday evening, with two in serious condition.
Some demonstrators attempted to break through police barricades after thousands earlier occupied a main road in the city and blocked lawmakers from entering their complex, prompting the postponement of a scheduled debate on the bill by the Legislative Council.
Police said some protesters hurled objects — including bricks, iron bars and road barriers — at the police, injuring some officers. Television footage showed at least one police officer as well as other people being treated for injuries.
Commissioner of Police Stephen Lo said the demonstrations had developed into a “riot” and that officers were “forced” to fire tear gas and rubber bullets to push back protesters who had tried to break the police blockade. By early evening, most of the protesters had left the government compound area.
Hong Kong’s business leaders, who until now had learned more toward Beijing, have begun expressing concerns about the implications of the proposed law in private. With the trade war with the U.S. and China only growing, foreign companies in particular worry that extraditions to the mainland could be used as a retaliatory tool by Beijing.
“The passage of this bill comes at the expense of the business community and we fear business confidence will suffer. The credibility of Hong Kong is now on the line,” said Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.
“We ask the government to drop or delay the tabling of this bill and preserve Hong Kong as a leading international business centre,” she said.
Economic crimes are technically exempt from the proposed extradition law. But many believe that Chinese police, who are under the control of the Communist Party, could demand that foreigners be sent to the mainland on false charges.
“The amendments could damage Hong Kong’s business environment and subject our citizens residing in or visiting Hong Kong to China’s capricious judicial system,” U.S. State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said.
The U.K. has also raised alarms over the move. “We are concerned about potential effects of these proposals, particularly obviously given a large number of British citizens there in Hong Kong,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said.
“It is vital that those extradition arrangements in Hong Kong are in line with the rights and freedoms that were set down in the Sino-British joint declaration,” she said, referring to the 1984 agreement that stipulated the city’s handover from the U.K. to China.
Hong Kong is one of Asia’s leading financial hubs, and topped the global ranking for new initial public offerings in 2018.
Should the extradition bill go through, investment banks and other financial institutions operating there could seek alternative bases in the region.
Many businesses, including major financial service companies such as HSBC Holdings, Standard Chartered, Deloitte and Ernst & Young, had earlier told their employees to work from home due to safety concerns.
Many small shops in the area also were closed — a move considered by some ac tacit permission for their workers to join the protest.
The Hang Seng Index fell 1.7% on Wednesday, with the protests partly weighing on trading activity.
Wednesday’s protests were reminiscent of the 2014 Occupy Central movement, also known as the Umbrella Movement when activists blocked and camped out on major roads in Hong Kong’s major government, business and commercial areas for 79 days to press the government to implement universal suffrage for the election of the city’s leader.
The latest round of protests came as Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam continued to push for passage of the extradition bill.
The president of the legislature, Andrew Leung, announced on Wednesday morning that debate on the bill had been postponed.
Leung did not say how long the delay would last or whether a vote on the bill, which had been expected on June 20, would be affected.
The bill has been at the centre of Hong Kong’s political debate in recent months as the government moved to plug what it calls a loophole exposed by a homicide case.
The government was not able to transfer a Hong Kong man accused of killing his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan because of the lack of an extradition agreement with the island.
Hong Kong currently has extradition treaties with roughly just 20 jurisdictions around the world, and mainland China, Taiwan and Macao are not among them.
Opponents of the legislation say the bill would pave the way for fugitives to be sent to mainland China, where many legal experts believe suspects will not receive a fair trial given the Communist Party’s control over the courts.
Opponents also say the proposed law would undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and damage its competitiveness as a financial hub.
The Chinese government on Wednesday reiterated its support for the extradition law that would allow suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial, Reuters reported from Beijing. Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a news conference that any actions that harm Hong Kong are opposed by public opinion in the city.
Pro-Beijing lawmakers hold 43 of the 70 seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Some of them had expressed reservations over the bill, given that the business community is one of their key support bases.
But the mainland government has been summoning them to its liaison office in Hong Kong, likely to deter them from giving in to pro-democracy demands.
The administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping “is moving to contain the situation,” a diplomatic source said.
The mostly young protesters say they are angry that the government is ignoring the voice of the people following a massive march on Sunday that organizers say drew more than 1 million people into the streets.
“I was little when Occupy Central happened,” said 18-year-old Tracy Wu, who joined Wednesday’s demonstration. “I don’t know if protesting now will make a difference, but I’ll regret it if I did not do it.”
Frances Eve, deputy director of research at Chinese Human Rights Defenders, criticized the lack of independence in China’s legal system.
“The Hong Kong government has legal obligations to protect human rights, which would be impossible if the planned amendments to the extradition bill go ahead,” Eve told the Nikkei Asian Review, adding that the government should “listen to the overwhelming chorus of voices” speaking out against the bill and “halt this undemocratic push.”