Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators who threw plastic bottles on Wednesday as protests turned to violent chaos. Tens of thousands of protesters gathered peacefully outside the Chinese-ruled city’s legislature before tempers flared, some charging police with umbrellas. Police warned them back, saying: “We will use force.”
The protestors, many of whom had only the umbrellas to defend themselves, fended off against waves of armed police wielding batons.
Many were smashed to the ground, seemingly injured as the police swept the demonstrators away with their riot shields.
Camera crews ran among the crowds as smoke and flares shot into the sky.
Ambulances were heading towards the protest area as panic spread through the crowd, many people trying to flee the stinging tear gas.
Some shops were putting up their shutters at the nearby IFC, one of Hong Kong’s tallest buildings.
Police chief Stephen Lo said protestors “must stop the violence”, warning residents to stay away from a “riot situation”.
He confirmed police were using plastic bullets.
The protesters, most of them young people dressed in black, had erected barricades as they prepared to hunker down for an extended occupation of the area, in scenes reminiscent of pro-democracy “Occupy” protests that gridlocked the former British colony in 2014.
Opposition to the bill on Sunday triggered Hong Kong’s biggest political demonstration since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” deal guaranteeing it special autonomy, including freedom of assembly, free press and independent judiciary.
But many accuse China of extensive meddling since, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with local elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialised in works critical of Chinese leaders.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has vowed to press ahead with the legislation despite deep concerns in the Asian financial hub, including among business leaders, that it could undermine those freedoms and investor confidence and erode the city’s competitive advantages.
The government said debate on the bill that was due to take place in the city’s 70-seat Legislative Council on Wednesday would be delayed until further notice.
The legislature is controlled by a pro-Beijing majority.
One young man wearing a black mask and gloves pledged “we will not leave until they scrap the law.”
China reiterated its support for the legislation.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters: “Any actions that harm Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability are opposed by mainstream public opinion in Hong Kong.”
Asked about rumours that more Chinese security forces were going to be sent to Hong Kong, Mr Shuang said that was “fake news”.
The rally was within sight of the Hong Kong garrison of China’s People’s Liberation Army, whose presence in the city has been one of the most sensitive elements of the 1997 handover.