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

Key Points
  • Large crowds of protesters gathered around the local legislature as lawmakers postponed a debate on a law that's been condemned by hundreds of thousands in the city.
  • The protesters are vowing to stop a government plan to allow extraditions to mainland China, but the heart of the demonstration is the fight against the city ceding its autonomy to Beijing.
  • Police threatened action and later fired tear gas at protesters.
  • Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who has refused to bow to public pressure, condemned the protests as an "open and organized riot."
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Violent protests broke out in Hong Kong — Here's what happened

Hong Kong police repeatedly fired tear gas and also shot rubber bullets into large crowds of protesters gathered 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.

Hong Kong has for nearly 22 years been a semi-autonomous region of the People's Republic of China with its own legal system and currency, legacies of its time as a British colony.

And while the territory was guaranteed a high degree of control over its own affairs for at least 50 years under a "one country, two systems arrangement" after Britain ceded sovereignty to China on July 1, 1997, local unease over increasing mainland influence has steadily grown.

In an evening video address released by the government, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's top official who has rejected calls to back away from the proposed legislation, condemned what she called the "intolerable" behavior of protesters.

Protesters react after police fired tear gas during a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019.
Dale de la Rey | AFP | Getty Images

"Clearly, this is not a peaceful assembly, but an open and organized riot," Lam said, according to a CNBC translation. "It is impossible for it to be considered an act that shows love for Hong Kong."

Security was heavy in the central part of the city from the morning with non-authorized access blocked to the Legislative Council, the local assembly. Activists called on opponents of the plan to surround the facility days after the biggest public demonstration in years shook the global finance and trade hub of 7.4 million people.

Large crowds overflowed roads and pathways leading to the building while police in riot gear were deployed outside. Police early on raised a red warning flag that read: "Stop Charging or We Use Force." Protesters surrounded Legco -- as the council is informally known -- in the morning but by late afternoon had largely been pushed to areas south of the facility.

In the afternoon, explosion-like sounds could be heard and smoke from tear gas was seen rising from near one protest point where police squared off with demonstrators. Video showed authorities using gas canisters and other methods to push back demonstrators. Protesters wearing white or black paper face masks dispersed and shouted amid smoky tear gas. Police walked through cleared areas knocking debris out of the way.

Sirens from emergency vehicles were occasionally heard. Massed protesters shouted "go away" to police and yelled out warnings and made gestures with their hands to send signals to others in the crowd. After one instance of tear gas being fired, protesters yelled "Shame on the Hong Kong police."

TV news footage showed demonstrators wielding umbrellas -- a symbol of aspirations for greater democracy in Hong Kong after protests in 2014 -- at times using them as shields in clashes with baton-wielding police. Some protesters threw objects and charged at officers.

Police officers stand surrounded by tear gas during a rally by protesters against a controversial extradition law proposal outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019.
Isaac Lawrence | AFP | Getty Images

A local man who gave his surname as Chow told CNBC that he felt sad watching the protest unfold.

"It's a pity, I think the government is foolish," he said, citing its decision to carry on with the legislative push despite Sunday's mass rally.

Asked if compromise was possible at this stage, he replied: "It's difficult."

Lawmakers were scheduled to discuss the bill 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, Hong Kong's No. 2 official, later issued a video statement saying large crowds blocking the vicinity of the legislature had caused the delay.

The Legco press office subsequently confirmed to CNBC that there would be no meeting on Wednesday.

'Human rights and due process'

Dennis Kwok, one of the legislators who has led opposition to the plan, 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."

A spokesman at the Hong Kong office of China's foreign ministry declined to comment when contacted by CNBC for reaction to Kwok's remarks.

Protesters cheer and make way for other demonstrators pushing a ladder cart outside the Legislative Council during a protest against a proposed extradition law in Hong Kong, China, on June 12, 2019.
Bloomberg | Getty Images

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 demonstration 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 firmly rejected calls to quit, telling reporters that she would push ahead with the plan.

'Hong Kong is Hong Kong'

She 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.

On Wednesday she showed no sign that the latest demonstration was changing her mind. In an an interview shown on local broadcaster TVB, Lam, at one point tearing up, said she believes in what she is doing.

And in the video address later, she said she understands that the proposed amendment has stirred strong emotions on both sides of the debate, but appealed for calm.

"I hope society will return to order as soon as possible," she said.

The government says the legislation 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.

Tear gas fired by police surrounds protesters during a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019.
ISAAC LAWRENCE | AFP | 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 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.

Role as a business hub

Still, the extradition changes, which the government says would only apply to fugitives accused of serious crimes, 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 foreign business groups, executives and governments, including the United States, have expressed concern that the legal changes could compromise Hong Kong's rule of law, and therefore make it a less attractive place to do business.

"The extradition bill imperils the strong U.S.-Hong Kong relationship that has flourished for two decades," Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi said in a statement Tuesday.

Foreign students In Japan hold up a placard which says No China Extradition at Meiji University on June 12, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan.
Keith Tsuji | Getty Images

Chris Brankin, CEO of TD Ameritrade Asia, said Wednesday on CNBC's "Squawk Box" that the protests in reaction to the plan are "not going to do anything to improve customer sentiment, especially from investors and from the United States."

And speaking at a briefing Monday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said the legal amendments "could damage Hong Kong's business environment and subject our citizens residing in or visiting Hong Kong to China's capricious judicial system."

That comment provoked a strong 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," Geng said.

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