HONG KONG — Riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets in downtown Hong Kong on Wednesday as they repelled tens of thousands of protesters who had swarmed the city’s legislature in anger over proposed legislation that would allow extraditions to mainland China.
The street confrontation began in earnest on Wednesday afternoon when a small number of protesters stormed police barricades outside the Legislative Council and hurled bricks, bottles and umbrellas at the officers. The riot police responded by firing rubber bullets, bean bag rounds and tear-gas canisters at the protesters.
The large-scale clashes — rare in this financial hub — underscore both the deep-seated anger that protesters feel about the erosion of liberties in the territory and the police’s resolve to maintain order.
The widespread public outrage over the bill also puts Carrie Lam, who was selected by China’s leaders to govern the territory two years ago, in a delicate position. Retreating risks making her look weak and drawing the ire of her party benefactors, who back the bill, but moving ahead with the vote on the proposal could incite even more protests and unrest.
Ms. Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, described the demonstrations as an organized riot but would not say if she would withdraw the contentious bill.
Earlier Wednesday, in remarks made before the protests turned violent, she compared the demonstrators to stubborn children.
“If my son was stubborn and I spoiled him and tolerated his stubborn behavior every time, I would just be going along with him,” Ms. Lam told a local television station.
The officers fired round after round of tear gas, sending protesters fleeing, in a response that recalled the start of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement five years ago. Back in 2014, the use of tear gas on student-led demonstrators prompted tens of thousands of people to pour onto the streets in anger.
On Wednesday, demonstrators said they were shocked and dismayed to see tear gas used against them again. The police also fired rubber bullets into the crowd for the first time in decades, and wounded a driver for a radio station with a shot in the eye.
“These are not the scenes I want to see,” said Phoebe Ip, 31, who took the day off from a marketing job to join largely peaceful demonstrations, but found herself dodging flying tear-gas canisters. “We just want to communicate, but there is no way for us to talk with them. They just want to push us away.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Stephen Lo, the police commissioner, described the demonstrations as “riots” and called on protesters to go home, warning that those who refused “might regret your decision for your entire life.”
With a volley of tear gas canisters, the police forced the protesters to retreat from the Legislative Council and into the streets, where they engaged in several skirmishes with riot officers who hit them with batons. At least on one occasion, in full view of reporters watching from a bridge, one officer severely beat a protester who fell down during the retreat, steps away from the Legislative Council.
The police had cleared some of the area by early Wednesday evening, but not entirely, and the smell of tear gas still hung over downtown. Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority said that 22 people had been taken to public hospitals with injuries sustained in the demonstrations.
Few in Hong Kong will believe that the demonstrations were riots, in part because they came on the heels of a mass protest in the city against the extradition bill three days ago, said Victoria Hui, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame who studies nonviolent resistance movements and Hong Kong politics.
But it was strategically unfortunate for the protest movement that some demonstrators resorted to violence on Wednesday, Ms. Hui said, if only because it gave the authorities an excuse to crack down harder. “A lot of young people, and not-so-young people, will be really scared of going back again” to future protests, she added.
The bill would allow Hong Kong to detain and transfer people wanted in countries and territories with which it has no formal extradition agreements, including Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.
The bill has sparked anger in recent months across a broad swath of society in this former British colony, and concerns from around the world. Jeremy Hunt, the British foreign secretary, urged Hong Kong on Wednesday to “pause and reflect” on the bill.
But the bill is likely to pass soon, possibly next week, because pro-Beijing lawmakers hold 43 of 70 seats in the Legislative Council.
The protests outside the council’s downtown headquarters began on Tuesday evening with vigils and modest demonstrations against the bill, a day before it was to have a second reading in the council.
By Wednesday morning, the multilane highway that runs past the council’s headquarters and through a canyon of skyscrapers — normally packed with businesspeople and patrons of a luxury mall — was filled with a raucous crowd. Many were young people who wore black T-shirts and wielded tools to help ward off pepper spray and tear gas, including hard hats, goggles and umbrellas, the enduring symbol of the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
Several protesters said in interviews that they had little hope of forcing the Hong Kong government to back down on the extradition bill. But they said they also recognized that it might be their last time to take such a public stand on incursions by the Chinese government into their way of life.
If the extradition bill passes, “they’ll think you’re a suspect and send you back to China,” said Daniel Yeung, 21, a protester who stood atop a cement barrier wearing black clothing, a white surgical mask and green gardening gloves.
Since Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, the territory has operated under a “one country, two systems” arrangement that allows it to keep its own institutions. But critics say that under President Xi Jinping of China, who came to power in 2012, Beijing’s supporters here are chipping away at the independence of the territory’s judiciary and news media.
The demonstrators on Wednesday had support from across Hong Kong society. Small businesses across the territory closed their shops in solidarity, for example, and a hotel chain offered rooms where protesters could shower and rest free of charge.
Carol Ng, the chairwoman of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and a union representative for the Hong Kong Cabin Crew Federation, said early on Wednesday afternoon that about 30 flight attendants from Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon were at the demonstration, albeit not as part of an official protest.
Ms. Ng warned that the extradition bill, if passed, could affect “each and everyone in the city,” including passengers in transit at Hong Kong’s international airport.
“No one is safe,” she said.
At some companies, including the marketing firm where Ms. Ip works, managers let their employees leave work to join the demonstrations.
Ms. Ip, who was 8 years old when Hong Kong returned to Chinese control, said she did so Wednesday out of love for her city.
But as the sun set over the Legislature Council, under the crackle of tear gas canisters, Ms. Ip looked weary and disillusioned. On her shoulder hung a towel that she had used to wipe pepper spray and tear gas from her eyes.
“This is not the Hong Kong I know,” she said quietly.