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HONG KONG (AP) – Hong Kong’s legislature suspended meetings Thursday as leaders considered their next steps following violent clashes between police and protesters opposed to a bill that would allow suspects to be tried in mainland Chinese courts.
Critics say the measure, now on hold, would undermine the city’s cherished legal autonomy amid moves by Beijing to tighten its hold over the former British colony.
Police said they arrested 11 people on charges such as assaulting police officers and unlawful assembly. Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung said 22 officers had been injured. Hospital officials said they treated 81 people for protest-related injuries.
Several hundred young protesters gathered Thursday on a pedestrian bridge, standing for hours singing and holding up signs with messages such as “Don’t Shoot” and “End the Violence.”
The debris-strewn area around the city’s government headquarters, which was besieged by the demonstrators a day earlier, was blocked off by police.
The standoff between police and protesters is Hong Kong’s most severe political crisis since the Communist Party-ruled mainland took control in 1997 with a promise not to interfere with the city’s civil liberties and courts. It poses a profound challenge both to the local leadership and to Chinese President Xi Jinping, the country’s strongest leader in decades who has demanded that Hong Kong follow Beijing’s dictates.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared that Wednesday’s violence was “rioting” that was “intolerable in any civilized society that respects the rule of law.” That designation could raise potential legal penalties for those arrested for taking part.
“Intense confrontation is surely not the solution to ease disputes and resolve controversies,” Mr. Lam said, according to an official news release.
A group of opposition lawmakers attempted to visit Mr. Lam’s residence to protest against the police use of force, including tear gas and rubber bullets, against the protesters on Wednesday. They were stopped by police and it was unclear if they would be able to present their complaint.
It is also unclear how Mr. Lam, as chief executive, might defuse the crisis, given Beijing’s strong support for the extradition bill and its distaste for dissent.
Beijing has condemned the protests but so far has not indicated whether it is planning harsher measures. In past cases of unrest, the authorities have waited months or years before rounding up protest leaders.
Nearly two years ago, Mr. Xi issued a stern address in the city stating that Beijing would not tolerate Hong Kong becoming a base for what the Communist Party considers a foreign-inspired campaign to undermine its rule over the vast nation of 1.4 billion people.
Not all in Hong Kong support the protesters. About a dozen older people staged a demonstration in a downtown garden in support of the extradition bill. But others expressed sympathy.
“I think that if the government continues doing this, there will be no hope for Hong Kong. If there’s no hope for Hong Kong, this is the last chance for us to fight for [it],” said Daniel Lee, a doctor.
Though never a bastion of democracy, Hong Kong enjoys freedoms of speech and protest denied to Chinese living in the mainland.
Opposition to the proposed extradition legislation, championed by Mr. Lam with Beijing’s support, brought what organizers said was 1 million people into the streets on Sunday. The clashes Wednesday drew tens of thousands of mostly young residents and forced the legislature to postpone debate on the bill.
On June 4, the city saw one of its biggest candlelight vigils in recent years to commemorate the 30th anniversary of China’s bloody suppression of student-led pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.