A group of protesters has stormed the Hong Kong government headquarters, smashing glass doors and prizing open metal shutters to enter the building, then spray-painting slogans on the walls of the Legislative Council chamber.
The semi-autonomous city marked the 22nd anniversary of its return to Chinese rule on Monday, an occasion which is marked annually with protests calling for greater freedoms.
From early on Monday there were clashes between angry protesters and riot police, with tensions high following weeks of protests over a controversial China extradition bill.
At the city’s Legislative Council building young protesters tore metal poles off fences and smashed glass doors with improvised weapons and trolleys.
The Hong Kong government has demanded that the protesters “stop at once.” In a statement, it condemned them for storming the government building, saying they were affecting everyone’s safety.
One young university student, who didn’t want to be identified, said protesters felt they had no choice while the government refused to listen to their demands.
“The government didn’t do anything when two million people asked them to. This is why we’re taking further action,” he said.
‘Extremely violent’ acts
The violent clashes were starkly different than the peaceful march that tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens attended just one street over, carrying signs calling for greater democracy and an end to the extradition bill.
The government issued a statement condemning the “extremely violent” acts, saying the police would take “appropriate enforcement action to protect public order and safety.”
Demonstrators took to the streets early Monday, blocking several key roads leading to the main government building. Protesters had hoped to block or interrupt an official flag raising ceremony marking the occasion, attended by the city’s embattled Chief Executive, Carrie Lam.
The ceremony marked a rare public appearance for Lam, who was forced to publicly apologize for the introduction of the extradition bill last month.
That bill has been shelved and Lam says there are no plans to restart the legislative process, but protests have not stopped, with a march on June 16 attracting around 2 million people, according to organizers.
Protesters fear the bill could be used to extradite residents to mainland China for political or business offenses and are pushing for it to be shelved completely.
Since May’s mass march, smaller demonstrations have targeted police and government offices, shutting them down and trapping police officers in their headquarters for hours.
Many protesters are angry over police use of tear gas and rubber bullets to force people off the streets on June 12, when protesters successfully blocked off the city’s legislature and prevented lawmakers from debating the extradition bill.
In her speech at the flag-raising ceremony Monday, Lam promised to “ease anxiety in the community, and to pave the way forward for Hong Kong.”
Beijing stands behind leader
While Beijing has stood by Lam, she is facing criticism from all sides for her handling of the crisis.
Lam says the bill was her idea, not Beijing’s, and she has taken responsibility for a rushed roll-out and failure to communicate with the public.
Even much of the city’s business community, traditionally conservative and unwilling to get too involved in politics, came out against the bill, and some pro-government figures criticized Lam for pushing it through the legislature against proper procedure.
Lam justified that move as necessary in order to extradite a wanted murderer to Taiwan, but that justification was undermined by Taipei’s statement in May that it would not accept any transfer under the controversial bill.
Protests and anger over the bill have reinvigorated an opposition movement that had appeared to be in the doldrums after repeated losses in the wake of the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
Now Lam is facing not only continued demonstrations against the bill — and demands for her resignation — but also a return to the issue behind the 2014 protests, that Hong Kongers are not able to choose their own leader.
A key reason Beijing was keen to keep Lam in place, even if she wanted to resign, is that losing her would require choosing another chief executive within six months. Currently that is done by an election committee heavily stacked in Beijing’s favor, and renewing this process would be sure to restart an angry political debate that had been safely kicked down the road to 2022.
Now that issue seems to be coming to the fore anyway, piling more pressure on Lam and creating new headaches for her bosses in Beijing.