HONG KONG/BEIJING: Beijing on Thursday (Jun 13) described the mass protests against Hong Kong’s extradition bill as “riots”, and said it supported the local government’s response.
Hong Kong Police Commissioner Stephen Lo He said what began as a peaceful gathering on Wednesday had degenerated into a riot with protesters “acting violently in an organised manner”.
Police arrested 11 people while 22 officers were injured and police had fired about 150 tear gas canisters, he said.
Police used rubber bullets and tear gas to break up crowds Wednesday after demonstrators – angry over legislation they say would leave people vulnerable to China’s opaque justice system – blocked roads and brought the city to a standstill.
Videos of Hong Kong police beating protesters have sparked accusations of brutality.
READ: Police face mounting brutality claims after Hong Kong clashes
As of 5pm on Thursday, there were 81 casualties related to the protests, the Hospital Authority said. These comprised 57 males and 24 females aged between 15 and 66 years old.
“Five males and two females are still staying in hospital with stable condition,” it added.
This is the worst political unrest since Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997.
The police have said that force was necessary to fend off protesters throwing bricks and metal bars.
Lo defended his officers on Thursday, saying they “had no choice but to escalate the use of force”.
But critics said officers used localised violence by small groups of hardcore activists to launch an unprecedented operation against the much larger mass of peaceful protesters who had taken over parts of the city on Wednesday.
Throughout the day police and officials worked to open roads and remove barricades thrown up in the city’s commercial heart, a district that boasts many international companies.
At a park next to parliament, much of the clean-up operation was done by young protesters who gathered piles of garbage, discarded protective gear and broken umbrellas.
READ: Thousands of Hong Kong protesters gather, govt offices shut after violent protests
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang Thursday said the protests were “an act that undermines Hong Kong’s stability”.
“What happened in the Admiralty area was not a peaceful rally, but a riot organised by a group,” he told a regular briefing.
“We support the Hong Kong government’s dealing with the situation in accordance with the law.”
The Hong Kong Bar Association also said the police “may well have overstepped its lawful powers” with “wholly unnecessary force against largely unarmed protesters who did not appear to pose any immediate threat to the police or the public”.
READ: China blasts EU’s ‘irresponsible’ remarks on Hong Kong
Protest organisers have announced plans for another mass rally for Sunday.
The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) also called for a city-wide strike on Monday to keep the pressure on the financial hub’s government to scrap the proposed bill.
“We urge citizens to join labour strikes, school strikes and business strikes,” said Jimmy Sham, the group’s spokesman.
“When facing ignorance, contempt and suppression, we will only be stronger, there will only be more Hong Kong people.”
The CHRF organised a huge rally against the bill on Sunday which they said drew more than a million people.
It has little control over groups of largely leaderless, young crowds of more hardline demonstrators at the vanguard of confrontations with police.
PROTESTORS MILL OUTSIDE PARLIAMENT
The number of protesters milling about outside the legislature in the financial district fell overnight but rose again through the day on Thursday to about 1,000 at one stage.
They expect the legislature, which has a majority of pro-Beijing members, will try to hold the debate at some stage, though it issued a notice saying there would be no session on Thursday.
READ: Why proposed changes to Hong Kong’s extradition law are fueling protests
“We will be back when, and if, it comes back for discussion again,” said protester Stephen Chan, a 20-year old university student.
“We just want to preserve our energy now.”
Earlier, some protesters tried to stop police from removing supplies of face masks and food and scuffles broke out.
Police with helmets and shields blocked overhead walkways and plainclothes officers checked commuters’ identity cards.
Most roads around the business district were open on Thursday but the Pacific Place shopping mall next to the legislature, and the AIA Central office tower, were closed.
Banks, including Standard Chartered, Bank of China and DBS, said they had suspended branch services in the area.
Authorities shut government offices in the financial district, which is overlooked by the towers of some of Asia’s biggest firms and hotel chains, for the rest of the week.
Hong Kong’s benchmark stock exchange slid as much as 1.5 per cent on Thursday before closing down 0.1 per cent, extending losses from the previous day.
The European Union called for the “fundamental right” for people to assemble and express themselves to be respected as it became the latest grouping to add its voice to a growing chorus of criticism of the bill.
The EU “shares many of the concerns raised by citizens of Hong Kong”, it said, drawing an angry response from China which dismissed the comments as “irresponsible and erroneous”.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said it was vital the proposed law did not breach the deal China agreed to, that is, to allow Hong Kong to retain its freedoms for at least 50 years.
US President Donald Trump told reporters in Washington he could “understand the reason for the demonstration” and that he hoped “it all works out for China and for Hong Kong”.