Hong Kong protesters ran riot in the legislature building on the 22nd anniversary of the city’s 1997 return to Chinese rule on July 1, smashing up paintings, doors, and walls amid widespread anger over a proposed bill that would allow extraditions to China.
Some carried road signs, others corrugated iron sheets and pieces of scaffolding upstairs and downstairs as about a thousand gathered around the Legislative Council (LegCo) building in the heart of the former British colony’s financial district.
A small group of mostly students wearing hard hats and masks had used a metal trolley, poles and scaffolding to charge again and again at the compound’s reinforced glass doors, which finally gave.
The LegCo issued a red alert, ordering the protesters to leave immediately.
It did not say what would happen if they didn’t. Police did not immediately intervene.
Riot police in helmets and carrying batons fired pepper spray as the standoff continued into the sweltering heat of the evening. Some demonstrators removed steel bars that were reinforcing parts of the council building.
Banners hanging over flyovers at the protest site read: “Free Hong Kong.”
The protesters, some with cling film wrapped around their arms to protect their skin in the event of tear gas, once again paralyzed parts of the Asian financial hub as they occupied roads after blocking them off with metal barriers.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam suspended the bill on June 15 after some of the largest protests in the city in decades, but stopped short of protesters’ demands to scrap it.
The Beijing-backed leader is now clinging on to her job at a time of an unprecedented backlash against the government that poses an unprecedented challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
“The kind of deafness that I see in the government this time around despite these protests is really worrying. The complete disregard for the will of the people is what alarms me,” said Steve, a British lawyer show has worked in Hong Kong for 30 years.
“If this bill is not completely scrapped, I will have no choice but to leave my home, Hong Kong.”
Opponents of the extradition bill, which would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party, fear it is a threat to Hong Kong’s much-cherished rule of law and are demanding it be scrapped and Lam step down.
Hong Kong returned to China under a “one country, two systems” formula in 1997 that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including freedom to protest and an independent judiciary.
For many Hong Kong residents, the extradition bill is the latest step in a relentless march toward mainland control.
Tens of thousands marched in temperatures of around 33 degrees Celsius (91.4°F) from Victoria Park in an annual rally. Many clapped as protesters held up a poster of Lam inside a bamboo cage.
Roughly two million people have taken to the streets at times over the past three weeks to vent their anger.
A tired-looking Lam appeared in public for the first time in nearly two weeks.
“The incident that happened in recent months has led to controversies and disputes between the public and the government,” she said. “This has made me fully realize that I, as a politician, have to remind myself all the time of the need to grasp public sentiment accurately.”
Protest Movement Reinvigorated
Beijing’s grip over Hong Kong has intensified markedly since Xi took power and after pro-democracy street protests that gripped the city in 2014 but failed to wrestle concessions from China.
The extradition bill has sent jitters across all sectors of Hong Kong.
Tensions spiraled on June 12 when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at anti-extradition protesters near the heart of the city, sending plumes of smoke billowing among some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers.
The uproar has reignited a protest movement that had lost steam after the failed 2014 “Umbrella Movement” demonstrations that led to the arrests of hundreds.
Activists raised a black bauhinia flag to half-mast outside the LegCo building before the rally and turned Hong Kong’s official flag, featuring a white bauhinia flower on a red background, upside down.
The turmoil comes at a delicate time for Beijing, which is grappling with a trade dispute with the United States, a faltering economy, and tensions in the South China Sea.
Opponents of the extradition bill fear it would put them at the mercy of China‘s justice system, where human rights are not guaranteed.
Beyond the public outcry, the extradition bill has spooked some of Hong Kong’s tycoons into starting to move their personal wealth offshore, according to financial advisers, bankers, and lawyers familiar with the details.
By John Ruwitch and Sumeet Chatterjee