Hundreds of protesters in Hong Kong swarmed into the legislature’s main building last night, tearing down portraits of legislative leaders and spray-painting pro-democracy slogans on the walls of the main chamber.
The sharp escalation in tactics came on the anniversary of the former British colony’s return to China, a city holiday, and reflected mounting frustration with Hong Kong’s leader for not responding to protesters’ demands after several weeks of demonstrations.
The protesters whacked away at thick glass windows until they shattered and broke and pried open steel security gates and propped them open with barricades to get inside. Police in riot gear retreated as the protesters entered about 9 p.m., avoiding a confrontation and giving them the run of the building.
They stood on lawmakers’ desks in the main legislative chamber, painted over the territory’s emblem high up on a wooden wall and wrote slogans calling for a democratic election of the city’s leader and denouncing now-suspended extradition legislation that sparked the protests. Many wore yellow and white helmets, face masks and the black T-shirts that have become their uniform.
Police announced about 10:30 p.m. that they would clear the area, asking protesters to leave and warning they would use “appropriate force” if they encountered resistance.
The actions prompted organizers of a separate peaceful march against the extradition bill to change the endpoint of their protest from the legislature to a nearby park, after police asked them to either call it off or change the route. Police wanted the march to end earlier in the Wan Chai district, but organizers said that would leave out many people who planned to join the march along the way.
Police estimated 190,000 people joined the peaceful march, the third major one in as many weeks.
Hong Kong has been wracked by weeks of protests over a government attempt to change extradition laws to allow suspects to be sent to China to face trial. The proposed legislation, on which debate has been suspended indefinitely, increased fears of eroding freedoms in the territory, which Britain returned to China on July 1, 1997.
Protesters want the bills formally withdrawn and Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, to resign.
Lam, who has come under withering criticism for trying to push the legislation through, pledged to be more responsive to public sentiment but has not responded directly to protesters’ demands.
In an address after a flag-raising ceremony marking the anniversary of the handover, Lam said the protests and two earlier marches that attracted hundreds of thousands of participants have taught her that she needs to listen better to youth and people in general.
“This has made me fully realize that I, as a politician, have to remind myself all the time of the need to grasp public sentiments accurately,” she told the gathering in the city’s cavernous convention center.
She insisted her government has good intentions, but said “I will learn the lesson and ensure that the government’s future work will be closer and more responsive to the aspirations, sentiments and opinions of the community.”
Security guards pushed pro-democracy lawmaker Helena Wong out of the room as she shouted at Lam to resign and withdraw the “evil” legislation. She later told reporters she was voicing the grievances and opinions of the protesters, who could not get into the event.
Mainland China’s entirely state-controlled media made no mention of yesterday’s protests. The main evening news broadcast carried video of the flag-raising ceremony, along with parts of Lam’s address and shots of Hong Kong residents praising displays put on by the People’s Liberation Army garrison in the territory.
Chinese media outlets have barely reported on the protests since they began last month, other than to blame foreign forces for stirring up unrest.
The extradition bill controversy has given fresh momentum to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition movement, awakening broader concerns that China is chipping away at the rights guaranteed to Hong Kong for 50 years under a “one country, two systems” framework. The two marches in June drew more than a million people, according to organizer estimates.
Jimmy Sham, a leader of the pro-democracy group that organized yesterday’s march, told the crowd that Lam had not responded to their demands because she is not democratically elected. The leader of Hong Kong is chosen by a committee dominated by pro-China elites.
“We know that Carrie Lam can be so arrogant,” Sham said, rallying the crowd under a blazing sun before the start of the march at Victoria Park. “She is protected by our flawed system.”
The protesters are also demanding an independent inquiry into police actions during a June 12 protest, when officers used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a demonstration that blocked the legislature on the day that debate on the bill had been scheduled to resume.
The police say the use of force was justified, but since then have largely adopted softer tactics, even as protesters besieged police headquarters in recent days, pelting it with eggs and spray-painting slogans on its outer walls.
The area around Golden Bauhinia Square, where the flag-raising ceremony took place, was blocked off from Saturday to prevent protesters from gathering to disrupt it. Before the morning ceremony, protesters trying to force their way to the square were driven back by officers with plastic shields and batons, the retreating protesters pointing open umbrellas to ward off pepper spray.
“We are horrified, this is our obligation to do this, we are protecting our home,” said Jack, a 26-year-old office worker who would only give his first name. “I don’t know why the government is harming us. It’s harming the rule of law, the rule of law is the last firewall between us and the Chinese Communist Party.”
The extradition legislation has drawn opposition from the legal profession, commercial groups and foreign nations, reflecting Hong Kong’s status as an international business center with a strong independent judiciary and high degree of transparency.
During a brief visit to Mongolia yesterday, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton said Washington expects “China like every other country to adhere to its international obligations” regarding Hong Kong.
China rejects all such statements as foreign interference. In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters at a daily briefing that “Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs, and no foreign country has the right to intervene.” Ken Moritsugu, AP
An objection to the handover celebration
Earlier in the day, protesters in Hong Kong pushed barriers and dumpsters into the streets early in an apparent bid to block access to a symbolically important ceremony marking the anniversary of the return of the former British colony to China.
Police in riot gear faced them in loose formation about 20 meters down the road. The area around Golden Bauhinia Square, where the ceremony takes place, had been shut down since Saturday.
In a counter-protest on Sunday, tens of thousands of people rallied in support of the police, who have come under criticism for using tear gas and rubber bullets during a crackdown on a protest that left dozens injured on June 12.
The boisterous crowd, some carrying Chinese flags, filled a park in front of the legislature and chanted “thank you” to the police. Some had angry exchanges with anti-extradition law protesters, as officers tried to keep the two groups apart. Police estimated the turnout at 53,000.
The latest reactions
The opposition Democratic Party urged Hong Kong Chief Executive Lam to meet with the crowds who had entered the legislature, “to have a dialogue with the protesters at the scene as soon as possible, to resolve a crisis that could lead to serious injuries and even death.”
Fernando Cheung, vice chairman of the Labour Party and a member of the Legislative Council, said the breaking and entering would play into the government’s past categorization of the protesters as rioters. “You see the anger, the desperation these young people are experiencing. That’s why they want to take anything they think is radical enough, escalating enough to make the government respond,” he told journalists in the chamber. “This is really unfortunate… this is exactly what the government wants.”
Chris Patten, the last colonial governor of Hong Kong, told BBC Radio 4 that the violent approach being used by demonstrators at the Legislative Council was “ill-advised.”
“I think that’s very very unwise, it plays into the hands of the hardliners, and it’s possible that it will detract from another peaceful march this afternoon which is a serious expression of Hong Kong’s concerns,” he said. Still, he said the government may have lowered tensions by engaging critics: “If you never actually have a dialog with people, then inevitably it helps to legitimize those do things in a more violent way.”
In a statement, the European Union said those who had forced their way into the legislature weren’t representative of the majority of demonstrators and urged restraint. “In the wake of these latest incidents, it is all the more important to exercise restraint, avoiding escalatory responses, and to engage in dialogue and consultation to find a way forward,” the body said.
One anonymous, mask-clad protester also said police should show restraint, saying some of the crowd inside the building was planning to leave before midnight.
One pro-Beijing lawmaker took the protesters inside the Legislative Council to task. “This is not a protest, this is vandalism,” Alan Hoo, vice-chairman of the Liberal Party, said on CNN.