Hong Kong Police Use Tear Gas, Rubber Bullets On Protesters

Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and high-pressure water hoses at protesters who had massed outside government headquarters in opposition to a proposed extradition bill.

The afternoon violence on Wednesday marked a major escalation in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory's biggest political crisis in years.

It came after protesters earlier in the day forced the delay of a legislative debate over the bill, which would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be sent for trial in mainland China.

The bill has become a lightning rod for concerns over greater Chinese control and erosion of civil liberties in the semi-autonomous territory.

The overwhelming young crowd had overflowed onto a major downtown road as they overturned barriers and tussled with police outside the government building.

A protester wears a gas mask and helmet as he stands behind a barricade during a protest against the extradition law. Image: Getty

But when some appeared to have breached the police cordon around offices of the government and Legislative Council in the city state's Wanchai district, leading to the police response, which also included firing nonlethal projectiles.

The protests are a challenge to China's ruling Communist Party and President Xi Jinping, who has in the past said he would not tolerate Hong Kong being used as a base to challenge the party's authority.

READ MORE: Thousands Protest In Hong Kong Against Proposed Extradition Laws To China

But they are also giving vent to young Hong Kongers alienated by a political process dominated by the territory's economic elite.

Dressed in black T-shirts and jeans, many protesters appeared undaunted by demands to disperse from police.

Protesters react after police fired tear gas. Image: Getty

Protesters clashed with police intermittently throughout the day, occasionally hurling traffic cones and other objects over metal traffic barriers.

Police initially responded with pepper spray, which was met with unfurled parasols as used in 2014 pro-democracy protests that became known as the Umbrella Movement.

Such protests are never tolerated in mainland China, and Hong Kong residents can face travel bans and other repercussions if they cross the border.

In a statement read out to reporters, Hong Kong Chief Secretary for Administration Mathew Cheung urged the protesters to clear the streets.

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"I would also like to ask the people in this gathering to stay calm and leave the scene as soon as possible and not to commit any crime," he said.

The protests are widely seen as reflecting growing apprehension about relations with the Communist Party-ruled mainland, where Xi has said he has zero tolerance for those demanding greater self-rule for Hong Kong.

Protesters face off with police after they fired tear gas. Image: Getty

Critics believe the extradition legislation would put Hong Kong residents at risk of being entrapped in China's judicial system, in which opponents of Communist Party rule have been charged with economic crimes or ill-defined national security offences, and would not be guaranteed free trials.

Opponents of the proposed extradition amendments say the changes would significantly compromise Hong Kong's legal independence, long viewed as one of the crucial differences between the territory and mainland China.

Police fire non-lethal projectiles during violent clashes against protesters. Image: Getty

Hong Kong currently limits extraditions to jurisdictions with which it has existing agreements and to others on an individual basis.

China has been excluded from those agreements because of concerns over its judicial independence and human rights record.

Those in Hong Kong who anger China's central government have come under greater pressure since Xi came to power in 2012.