Hong Kong shuts government buildings as protesters gather amid uneasy calm

Hong Kong suspended government meetings and shut offices as the city witnessed an uneasy calm following violent clashes over a controversial extradition law.

A few thousand protesters on Thursday readied for potentially more confrontation with police, a day after authorities fired tear gas and rubber bullets at unarmed demonstrators.

Some protesters around Hong Kong's legislature, the epicentre of the violence, rushed to stop police from removing supplies of face masks and food. School children joined the steadily growing crowd, which grew from around 20 protesters early on Thursday to a few thousand by midday.

Uniformed police with helmets and shields blocked overhead walkways, while a long row of police vans were parked nearby. Plain clothes police officers checked identification of commuters.

Hong Kong authorities have shut government offices in the city's financial district for the rest of the week after some of the worst violence in Hong Kong since Britain handed it back to Chinese rule in 1997.

Police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray in a series of skirmishes on Wednesday to clear demonstrators from the city's legislature. The Hong Kong Hospital Authority said 72 people had been taken to hospital by 10 pm on Wednesday.

The extradition bill, which will cover Hong Kong residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or travelling through the city, has sparked concerns it may threaten the rule of law that underpins Hong Kong's international financial status.

Wednesday was the third night of violence since a protest on Sunday drew what organisers said was more than a million people in the biggest street demonstration since the 1997 handover.

Overnight several thousand demonstrators remained near the legislature in the Admiralty district, while thousands more retreated to the Central business district, overlooked by the towers of some of Asia's biggest firms and hotel chains, including HSBC and AIA.

Hong Kong's benchmark stock exchange slid 1.5 percent down in early trade on Thursday, extending losses from Wednesday afternoon as tensions escalated.

Ken Lam, a protester in his 20s who works in the city's food and beverage industry, said he would remain on strike until the bill was scrapped.

"I don’t know what the plan for protesters is today, we will just go with the flow, but we think the turnout will be smaller than yesterday and it will be peaceful, after what happened yesterday," he said.

Most roads around the central business district were opening for traffic on Thursday, but Pacific Place, a prime shopping mall next to the legislature, remained closed. Banks including Standard Chartered, Bank of China and DBS said they had suspended branch services in the area until further notice.

Banks based in the Central district - the financial heart of the city - emphasised it was ‘business as usual’ but many offered staff, where possible, the option of working from home.

“As a precaution, we shut two outlets early where the protests were taking place. Our priorities are the safety of our employees and supporting our customers,” said HSBC, whose ground-level public space at its headquarters has previously been a focal point for protests.

Hong Kong's China-backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam condemned the violence late on Wednesday and urged a swift restoration of order.

While acknowledging the controversy, Lam has refused to postpone or withdraw the bill, which she and her officials say is necessary to plug "loopholes" that are allowing the city to be a haven for criminals wanted on the mainland.

Lam has said the courts would provide human rights safeguards in vetting case-by-case extraditions to mainland China.

Opponents, including leading lawyers and rights groups, say China's justice system is marked by torture and forced confessions, arbitrary detention and poor access to lawyers.

Democratic lawmakers in an improptu media standup in the legislature on Thursday strongly criticised Lam's heavy handed police response.

"We are not a haven for criminals, but we have become a haven of violent police. Firing at our children? None of the former chief executives dared to do that," said legislator Fernando Cheung.

"But 'mother Carrie Lam' did it. What kind of mother is she, I have never seen such a evil hearted mother.”

Police stand guard on a footbridge near the government headquarters a day after a violent demonstration against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong  Credit: AFP

The legislature remained closed with the council issuing a notice that the group's meeting would not be held on Thursday.

Chinese state media said in editorials published on Thursday that the protests were "hammering" Hong Kong's reputation.

"It is lawlessness that will hurt Hong Kong, not the proposed amendments to its fugitive law," said the English-language China Daily.

Diplomatic pressure was also building.

Prime minister Theresa May said it was vital the proposed law did not breach the UK-Sino agreement signed at the time of the city's return to China in 1997.

Speaking in Parliament, she said her government was concerned about the "potential effects of these proposals particularly obviously given the large number of British citizens there are in Hong Kong."

US President Donald Trump told reporters in Washington he could "understand the reason for the demonstration" and said he hoped "it all works out for China and for Hong Kong."

The European Union said in a statement that it shared many of the concerns raised by citizens of Hong Kong regarding the proposed extradition reforms and called for an in depth inclusive public consultation to move forward.

"This is a sensitive issue, with potentially far-reaching consequences for Hong Kong and its people, for EU and foreign citizens, as well as for business confidence in Hong Kong.