Police repeatedly fire tear gas on protesters as confrontation turns violent in Hong Kong

Protesters flee the area after police fired tear gas during demonstrations outside the Legislative Council Complex in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019.

Isaac Lawrence | AFP | Getty Images

Hong Kong police repeatedly fired tear gas and rubber bullets into large crowds of protesters gathering around the local legislature on Wednesday. That came as lawmakers postponed debate on proposed legal changes condemned by hundreds of thousands in the city.

The protests, which kicked off over the weekend, were aimed at stopping a government plan to allow extraditions to mainland China. The heart of the issue, demonstrators say, is the city’s ceding its autonomy to Beijing.

Large crowds overflowed roads and pathways leading to the Legislative Council, the local assembly, while police in riot gear were deployed. Police early on raised a red warning flag that reads: “Stop Charging or We Use Force.”

In the afternoon, an explosion-like sound could be heard and smoke from tear gas was seen rising from near a protest point where police squared off with demonstrators. Video showed authorities using gas canisters and other methods to push back demonstrators

Security was heavy in central Hong Kong with non-authorized access blocked to the local legislature. Activists have called on opponents of the proposal to surround the facility days after the biggest public demonstration in years shook the global finance and trade hub of 7.4 million people.

Lawmakers were scheduled to discuss the proposal Wednesday but the legislature announced in a brief statement on its website that the meeting would be “changed to a later time.”

Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary for Administration, Matthew Cheung, later issued a video statement saying that: “Due to a large crowd blocking areas around the Legislative Council building, the President of Legislative Council ordered to delay the meeting to another time,” according to a CNBC translation.

“The government urges citizens who are occupying the roads to return to the pedestrian walkways so that traffic can resume soon,” said Cheung, the No. 2 official in Hong Kong. “I also wanted to call for the citizens here to remain calm and restrain, to leave peacefully soon and not to break the law.”

Dennis Kwok, one of the lawmakers who has led opposition, said he’s doing so because of Hong Kong and the mainland’s fundamentally different legal characters.

“It’s because we do not trust the legal system in China, where there is no independence of judiciary and there is no respect for human rights and due process,” Kwok told CNBC on Wednesday. “And sending people there to face serious criminal trials with no human rights safeguard is below our standard.”

CNBC attempted to contact the spokesman at the Hong Kong office of China’s foreign ministry for comments on Kwok’s remarks but could not immediately reach him.

Police said that 240,000 people participated at the peak of Sunday’s protest that saw throngs march down a main street shouting slogans and carrying signs denouncing the legislation and demanding Hong Kong’s top official, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, resign.

Organizers, however, claimed a turnout of slightly more than 1 million. The last time Hong Kong saw a protest of such scale was in 2003 when an estimated 500,000 people rallied against a proposed security law that also raised fears of closer links to China.

Sunday’s protest was overwhelmingly peaceful, but there were clashes at night between protesters and police at the legislature with injuries suffered and arrests made.

Lam, who next month starts the third year of a five-year term, on Monday rejected calls to quit , telling reporters that she will push ahead with the plan in the local assembly.

‘Hong Kong is Hong Kong’

Lam also said the idea for the legal change came from her government, denying widespread suspicions that she is acting at the behest of Beijing authorities.

The government says it is necessary to close a legal “gap” that prevents it from extraditing a local man to Taiwan for allegedly killing his girlfriend while on a visit there last year.

It wants to amend a local ordinance to that effect, but the change would also apply to China and other locales with which Hong Kong lacks extradition treaties. The government says the bill includes strong safeguards, including those that will prevent human rights abuses, and has claimed it won’t be used for political purposes.

A demonstrator displays the U.K. flag behind a police line on June 10 in Hong Kong.

Chan Long Hei | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

But Tsai Ing-wen, Taiwan’s president, in a Tuesday Facebook post lauded the Hong Kong protesters and criticized the proposal, saying the self-governing island would not accept the accused man’s extradition under the proposed legal change.

Many in Hong Kong, which has a separate legal system from mainland China, fear being caught up in mainland courts, which are widely criticized by human groups as a political tool of the Chinese Communist Party.

“I think Hong Kong is Hong Kong. It’s not China,” said Jeace Chan, who participated in Sunday’s demonstration and was having breakfast Wednesday before heading to the legislature to join the latest protest aimed at stopping passage of the bill.

“This is our goal,” she added.

Hong Kong’s role as a business hub

Foreign business groups and governments, including the United States, have expressed concern that the legal change could compromise Hong Kong’s rule of law, and therefore make the global financial center a less attractive place to do business.

Chris Brankin, CEO of TD Ameritrade Asia, said the latest protests in the city are “not going to do anything to improve customer sentiment, especially from investors and from the United States,” Brankin said Wednesday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

But the extradition rule changes, which the government says would only apply to fugitives accused of serious crimes, also have some support among local organizations. For one, Hong Kong’s Chinese General Chamber of Commerce released a statement on Monday, saying the proposal would lead to “a more established legal environment” in Hong Kong and called for quick passage.

But Hong Kong’s continuing attractiveness as a base for international business is increasingly being questioned.

“We are also concerned that 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 spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said at a briefing Monday.

That provoked a response from the Chinese government, which has warned foreign countries to not interfere.

“China deplores and firmly opposes the irresponsible and erroneous comments on the amendments and other Hong Kong affairs made by the U.S. side,” Geng Shuang, a foreign ministry spokesman in Beijing, said at a regular briefing Tuesday.

“We urge the U.S. to view the relevant amendments in a fair and just manner, exercise caution in its words and deeds, and stop in whatever form interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China’s domestic affairs.

—CNBC’s Vivian Kam, Paula Sailes and Huileng Tan contributed to this report.

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