HONG KONG — Hong Kong descended into scenes of crackdowns and defiance Wednesday as demonstrators occupied main boulevards and faced down tear gas and rubber bullets in a widening crisis over a bill that would allow extraditions to China.
The unfolding images across the global financial hub — violent street battles, drivers abandoning vehicles and blocking roads in a show of solidarity — suggested both sides were digging in during another potentially pivotal moment for the former British colony.
For the protesters, the extradition plan amounts to the latest erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms and special status more than two decades after returning to Chinese control. Critics fear that it would effectively bring China’s justice system — and its harsh rules against dissent — to the semiautonomous enclave.
Hong Kong’s administration, meanwhile, is packed with pro-Beijing officials who appear intent on pushing through the measure. Amid the chaos, however, the legislature postponed a scheduled second reading of the bill. A final vote is expected by June 20.
Some demonstrators had come prepared with umbrellas, harking back to the 2014 Umbrella Movement pro-democracy protests in which young demonstrators had to shield themselves from police pepper spray.
Those protesters five years ago occupied the streets for 79 days, calling for a greater voice in selecting Hong Kong’s leadership — demands that were not met. The extradition bill has reenergized residents and galvanized a wide cross-section of Hong Kong.
“We are trying to tell the government that the more they suppress us, the more we will fight back,” said Justin Tang, 25, an airline employee who was sitting on a road that would normally be filled with Hong Kong’s red-and-white taxis and transit buses.
“Being the last city in China that is able to do that, we are going to hold on to that right,” he said.
And though the protests apparently delayed a reading of the bill, Beijing-backed leader Carrie Lam on Wednesday insisted the law would be pushed through. That left questions as to the next steps on both sides.
The Hong Kong Police Force said as of Wednesday night it did not have the exact number of arrests. An unconfirmed number of people also suffered injuries from police-fired rubber bullets, bean bag rounds and tear gas.
Local news reports, citing hospital figures, said 72 people were injured by police-fired rubber bullets and tear gas, including a van driver from public broadcaster RTHK who was shot in the head. The reports could not be independently verified.
The unrest weighed on markets. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index ended the day down 1.7 percent. The political fallout also expanded.
Britain’s foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, urged the Hong Kong administration to “pause and reflect” on the extradition bill. In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus took a jab at Beijing. The protesters, she said, “don’t like being subjugated . . . as it relates to some of their fundamental rights.”
Since Sunday — when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets — the demonstrators have grown increasingly confrontational.
Throughout the day, the protesters — some wearing goggles and yellow construction helmets — pushed against police lines to force them back. Police eventually deployed tear gas, rubber bullets and batons.
“Police reiterate that any acts endangering public order and public safety will not be tolerated,” the Hong Kong Police Force said in a statement. “Police will take resolute actions to restore social order and protect public safety.”
At one point, a group of protesters streamed onto major roads near Hong Kong’s main government offices, the Legislative Council complex. Demonstrators removed metal barricades, commandeering them to block key intersections and expressway ramps. Other barricades were used as makeshift ladders to assist people climbing over large concrete road dividers.
Hong Kong’s Harcourt Road, a major thoroughfare tying the city together, erupted into anarchy in the afternoon, until the rally was briefly dispersed and pushed back to central areas of the city.
At nightfall, the area around the legislature was deserted, but protests flared elsewhere in central Hong Kong, occupying some of the city’s most well-known areas. Thousands of people walked the car-free streets.
Riot police remained stationed across the city. On the sidewalks, demonstrators stockpiled supplies preparing for what appeared to be a lengthy occupation. Drivers jackknifed their cars across main roads to halt traffic; a Tesla sports car blocked the entrance to a tunnel.
The government has refused to scrap the extradition bill even after an enormous protest over the weekend, which organizers said brought more than 1 million people into the streets.
Hong Kong chief executive Lam said in a television interview Wednesday that she “never had self-doubt because of this issue” and would continue to pursue it.
She compared young protesters to a child who is given too much leniency by his mother and then indulges in headstrong behavior.
“He will feel regret: ‘Why was my mother not tough with me?’ ” she said, criticizing herself for being too tolerant with the protesters.
Lam appeared to grow emotional when asked to respond to claims that she had “sold out” Hong Kong.
“I was born here, raised here like every other Hong Konger. For my love of this place I have made no small amount of sacrifices,” she said.
China’s central government “will continue to support” Hong Kong’s government in passing the extradition law, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a news briefing in Beijing on Wednesday.
Any actions that harm Hong Kong are opposed by mainstream Hong Kong public opinion, Geng said, and he urged the United States to speak and act with caution regarding Hong Kong.
“We all, myself included, we underestimated people power in Hong Kong,” pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo told protesters. “We in particular underestimated the young people power,” she added, calling on Lam to drop the extradition bill.
Protesters who spoke to The Washington Post said they felt better prepared and more organized than in 2014, despite the long odds of changing the government’s position. Demonstrators quickly established points to distribute water, gloves, helmets, surgical masks and boxes of milk tea.
People arriving with crates of supplies were met with cheers and applause.
Others helped to dress their fellow protesters’ arms in plastic wrap — makeshift protection against the possibility of irritating pepper spray. Demonstrators cleared a path to allow first-aid workers to move quickly through the throngs of people. Police fired tear gas grenades at protesters, who ran toward the smoking projectiles to quickly douse them with water and put them out.
Wong, 24, who gave only her surname, said she arrived at 6 a.m. to the area around the Legislative Council complex. Wong and a group of university friends handed out food to people walking by, including cups of orange juice bought at a nearby McDonald’s.
“This is Hong Kong, where I was born, and this is my city. All of us here are protecting our home,” she said. The Chinese government is “invading,” she added, and if the extradition legislation is passed, “everything that was built here will be destroyed.”
In one fracas, protesters hurled umbrellas, bottles and helmets at the officers. But the barrage of tear gas was eventually too much. They sat in knots flushing their eyes with water and coughing from the aftereffects of the gas.
As they dispersed, broken helmets, water bottles and discarded masks were strewn across the street. Remnants of tear gas still wafted through office buildings and shopping centers.
On a pedestrian walkway, a crowd gathered as an older woman carrying a yellow umbrella in the rain berated police using a microphone.
Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 after more than a century of British colonial rule. Under the handover agreement, China promised that the territory would remain politically independent, able to enact its own laws, and would keep its judicial and immigration systems and its economic framework.
But the territory’s autonomy has been eroding at a hastening pace for years, and critics say the extradition measure could be the final nail in the coffin: the effective end of the “one country, two systems” framework, by extending mainland law into Hong Kong. The extradition bill would allow fugitives to be repatriated to countries with which Hong Kong does not have an extradition agreement, including China.
Conrad Wu was one of the first business owners to announce he would be shutting down. The owner of Call4Van, a moving van-hailing service with about 300 drivers, Wu said he was frustrated with the government’s insistence on pushing ahead with the bill after the march Sunday.
“The response we received was, ‘I don’t give a damn,’ ” he said.
Wu expressed the widely held fear that passage of the bill would undermine “one country, two systems” and stamp out political autonomy in Hong Kong.
“I truly believe we need to do whatever it takes to prevent this from happening,” he said.
Tang, the airline worker, said he was not surprised by the government’s refusal to back down but was still angered by it.
“The reaction is what we expected because Carrie Lam is not elected by the people and is just a puppet of Beijing,” he said. “It makes you really wonder who runs the Hong Kong government. Is it Hong Kong or is it Beijing?”
Shibani Mahtani in Hong Kong, Carol Morello in Washington, and Jeanne Whalen, Gerry Shih, Lyric Li and Yuan Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.