Hong Kong Protest Updates: Police Use Tear Gas as Protests Inch Toward Legislature

Protesters, hurling bricks and umbrellas, clashed with riot police who hit them with batons and repeated rounds of tear gas over a thin stretch of concrete surrounding Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, as the demonstrations became more pitched on Wednesday afternoon.

A line of protesters, many of them young people in black T-shirts, repeatedly rushed toward a ring of heavily armored police, only to be repelled by the officers who lashed out with blows, rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas.

Only a thin metal barrier separated the two groups as the protesters’ front line slowly inched closer to the source of their anger — Hong Kong’s legislature.

One police officer held a giant red sign warning protesters: “Stop charging or we will use force.”

The police’s use of tear gas and nonlethal projectiles represented a turning point in their response to the demonstrations, and reflected the government’s determination to keep the territory’s legislature from being overrun by the people.

Five years ago, the use of tear gas by police in an attempt to push back against a student democracy protest incited public fury that brought tens of thousands of people onto the streets. That turned into a sustained occupation of several commercial districts for several months in Hong Kong known as the Umbrella Movement, referring to the shield of choice used to fend off police pepper spray.

Many of the city’s lawmakers, from both the pro-democracy camp that opposes the extradition legislation and the pro-Beijing majority that supports it, failed to arrive at the council for a scheduled debate on Wednesday morning, after protesters surrounded the complex and blocked traffic.

A Hong Kong official urged protesters to go home after tens of thousands of protesting residents forced the body to postpone a debate on a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China.

“We suggest that citizens who are occupying the streets should leave immediately so that traffic could resume as soon as possible,” said Matthew Cheung, the administration’s chief secretary.

“I hope that citizens could stay calm and leave the site soon without committing any crimes,” he said, adding that the bill was aimed only at criminals and would not be used to target political dissidents.

Similar assurances by pro-Beijing politicians have done little to quell the fear or suppress the outrage of regular Hong Kong residents.

Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker and former cabinet minister, and her team were among those unable to enter the council building because protesters had blocked surrounding roads, said Emma Li, a spokeswoman for Ms. Ip’s New People’s Party.

Pro-democracy lawmakers and activists lauded the protests and thanked the people for their efforts.

“We all, myself included, we underestimated people power in Hong Kong,” Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker, told a crowd of protesters. “We in particular underestimated the young people’s power in Hong Kong, and we thank you.”

In China, information about the protests was being carefully scrubbed from social media and messaging groups. The ruling Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, published an article Wednesday describing the protesters as colluding with foreign anti-China forces to “create social conflict and obstruct the operation of the legislative council.”

The demonstrators, many of them young people in black T-shirts and wearing surgical masks, set up heavy metal barriers on a wide road outside the Legislative Council, as the sound of the metal scraping the asphalt ricocheted through a canyon of skyscrapers. Hundreds of riot police, wearing full face shields and carrying batons, looked on.

The protest recalled the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement five years ago, which shut down several districts in the city — including the very roads that protesters were blocking on Wednesday — but ultimately failed to win any concessions from the government.

One of the protesters, Daniel Yeung, 21, stood on a cement barrier in the center of the road in the shadow of the legislative building, wearing black clothing, a white surgical mask and gardening gloves. The road, normally a busy thoroughfare, was now a sea of black shirts. A city bus stood stalled at the edge of the crowds.

Mr. Yeung said he had come to protest the extradition bill and what he called the “arbitrary” policies of Carrie Lam, the Beijing-backed chief executive of Hong Kong, and President Xi Jinping of China. If the law passes, he said, he feared what the authorities might do. “They’ll think you’re a suspect and send you back to China.”

Small businesses across Hong Kong closed their shops in solidarity with the protesters. A hotel chain offered rooms where protesters could shower and rest free of charge. At some other companies, managers let employees leave work to join the demonstrations, and union leaders told members to find creative ways to participate without calling for a strike, that included the drivers at one bus company pledging to drive below the speed limit.

But Hong Kong’s most powerful voices, those of the large international banks that have long made the city a global financial hub have remained largely quiet on the issue of extradition.

“The extradition bill is worrying because for business it starts to call into question whether there is now a blurred line between politics and business in a city that views itself as a commercial capital that puts business first,” said Tara Joseph, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.

While the international business community has mainly worried behind boardroom doors, more than a thousand small local Hong Kong businesses closed their doors on Wednesday.

On Instagram hundreds of coffee shops, restaurants and other businesses posted pictures with the hashtag “#612strike.” One online floral company called Imfloraholic wrote, “Hong Kong is sick, let’s take a day off for some rest! #NoChinaExtradition #612罷市.”

“Striking is the only action we could take against the legislation of the unjust extradition law,” said Yanki Lam, the owner of a shop in the Kowloon section of the city. “Although our power is small, as Hong Kongers, striking is what we could do, and we must voice our concern and show our care to our home.”

Lawmakers are likely to vote on the bill by the end of next week, the head of Hong Kong’s legislature said, despite mass protests over the weekend.

The plan, announced on Tuesday by the chairman of the Legislative Council, Andrew Leung, further inflamed tensions in Hong Kong after Sunday saw one of the largest protests in the semiautonomous Chinese territory’s recent history.

The city’s police force said no violence would be tolerated at any public protests. The South China Morning Post reported that thousands of additional officers had been mobilized.

Mr. Leung said that the bill could go to a vote on June 20 after about 60 hours of debate, adding “the case is pressing and has to be handled as soon as possible.” The measure is likely to pass in the local legislature, where pro-Beijing lawmakers hold 43 of 70 seats.

Opposition lawmakers had expected the vote to take place around the end of the month, based on a regular schedule of meetings. The legislative chairman’s decision to add more meetings in the coming days in order to bring the date of the vote forward quickly drew criticism. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said on Monday that the bill would be pushed through “out of our clear conscience, and our commitment to Hong Kong.”

The bill would allow Hong Kong to detain and transfer people wanted in countries and territories with which it has no formal extradition agreements, including Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has said the new law is urgently needed to prosecute a Hong Kong man who is wanted in Taiwan for the murder of his girlfriend. But the authorities in Taiwan, a self-governed island claimed by Beijing, say they would not agree to the extradition arrangement because it would treat Taiwan as part of China.

Critics contend that the law would allow virtually anyone in the city to be picked up and put on trial in mainland China, where judges must follow the orders of the Communist Party. They fear the new law would not just target criminals but political activists as well.

The extradition plan applies to 37 crimes. That excludes political ones, but critics fear the legislation would essentially legalize the sort of abductions to the mainland that have taken place in Hong Kong in recent years. The mainland Chinese authorities are typically not permitted to operate in the semiautonomous territory.

Mike Ives, Tiffany May, Katherine Li, Alexandra Stevenson, Russell Goldman, Gillian Wong and Daniel Victor contributed reporting.