June 14, 2019 / 4:07 AM / 12 days ago

RPT-Banks re-open as Hong Kong returns to normal ahead of weekend protest

(Repeats to fix story link in paragraph 13, edits)

By Farah Master and Sumeet Chatterjee

HONG KONG, June 14 (Reuters) - Police kept a close watch over central Hong Kong on Friday as the Asian financial hub returned to normalcy, with banks re-opening branches closed during violent protests against a proposed extradition bill with mainland China.

Further demonstrations are planned at the weekend, however, as the city’s government shows no signs of backing down over the controversial bill, which critics fear will undermine freedoms and confidence in Hong Kong.

March organisers have urged people to take to the streets again on Sunday, and protesters applied for a permit to gather on Monday, when legislators may reconvene to discuss the bill.

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

The territory’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, has stood by the bill, saying it is necessary to plug loopholes that allow criminals wanted on the mainland to use the city as a haven. She has said the courts would safeguard human rights.

On Friday, HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank re-opened branches that had been shut near the site where the protests erupted. Businesses operated normally and commuters flowed through the area.

A few dozen demonstrators clustered near the city’s legislature, which had been scheduled to debate the bill this week but was thwarted when thousands of protesters took to the streets and blocked the building.

Police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, have been criticised for using excessive force on unarmed demonstrators.

Police have said they arrested 11 people and fired about 150 tear gas canisters at the crowd during Wednesday’s protests, which the hospital authority said had injured 81 people.

They also later arrested two students at the University of Hong Kong after a raid on a student hall of residence, a university official said. The police gave no immediate reply to queries from Reuters on what charges the students face.

The unrest forced authorities to close government offices for the week.

Diplomatic pressure on Hong Kong mounted.

In the United States, senior congressional lawmakers from both parties introduced legislation to require an annual justification from the U.S. government for the continuation of special business and trade privileges to Hong Kong.

Last Sunday, a march against the extradition bill drew what organisers said was more than a million people for the biggest street demonstration since the 1997 handover of the former British colony back to Chinese rule.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule under a pact promising it a high degree of autonomy within a “one country, two systems” framework. Critics say Beijing has been slowly undermining that deal and encroaching on Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Beijing has rejected those accusations and state media said this week that “foreign forces” were trying to damage China by creating chaos over the bill.

The hawkish Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, lambasted foreign leaders for being hypocrites and failing to condemn what it called violent demonstrators.

“This is a stark provocation,” an editorial on its website said on Friday.

“These U.S. senators make us see the dark mind of the U.S. political elite who just want to turn Hong Kong into a chaotic place by hyping the uncontrolled violent street politics.”

Hong Kong’s benchmark stock index slid as much as 1.5% on Thursday before closing down 0.1%, extending losses from the previous day. (Writing by John Ruwitch Additional reporting by Sijia Jiang in HONG KONG and David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez)

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