It was meant to be a day to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule. Instead, the city descended into unprecedented chaos on Monday, as protesters demonstrating against a controversial extradition bill stormed the government headquarters, and police cleared protesters massed outside with tear gas and batons.
Tensions grew throughout the day at the Legislative Council building, the seat of Hong Kong’s government, as a splinter group of young protesters smashed through the complex’s glass doors and windows with metal poles and a trolley cart. Following a lengthy standoff with riot police stationed inside, hundreds of protesters stormed into the complex around 9 p.m. local time (9 a.m. ET) and ripped down portraits of local politicians. They also sprayed graffiti on the walls that read, "the government forced us to revolt," and pinned the British colonial-era flag to the podium.
The unarmed protesters, most of them wearing yellow helmets and face masks, carried on into the building’s main legislative chamber. At the same time, riot police appeared to retreat further into the complex after they’d warned the protesters earlier to back off or they would use force.
From the occupied legislative chamber, the protesters issued a list of demands, including a call for universal suffrage, an investigation into police brutality during recent protests, and the resignation of senior officials. As they debated whether to retreat from the building with their point made, or continue their occupation into the morning, police issued a public warning that they were preparing to clear the area surrounding the government building, where thousands of protesters had occupied the streets.
The response, when it came, was swift and dramatic. After raising black flags indicating they were preparing to deploy tear gas, hundreds of officers in riot gear charged the crowds and climbed over barricades erected by protesters earlier in the day. Their charge drove the crowd of screaming protesters — many of whom tried to shield themselves with umbrellas — a symbol of the pro-democracy movement — into a hasty retreat. News of the action outside prompted the occupiers of the Legislative Council to abandon their position and rush outside.
The clashes marked the most dramatic escalation in the city’s weeks-long protest movement against a proposed law that would allow extraditions to China, worried about further erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy. After more than a million Hongkongers took to the streets on two occasions, the city’s pro-Beijing leader, Carrie Lam, announced that the government was suspending the bill.
But the suspension has failed to satisfy protesters, who have continued to march in large numbers. They’re calling for the bill to be scrapped completely, for detained protesters to be released, and for Lam to resign.
The dramatic scenes at the Legislative Council were separate to a peaceful annual pro-democracy rally that took place elsewhere in central Hong Kong — although some of the estimated 550,000 who attended then occupied the streets surrounding the government building at the conclusion of the rally. July 1, the anniversary of the 1997 handover of the former British colony to Chinese rule, is routinely marked by peaceful pro-democracy protests. But amid the current heated climate, Monday’s proceedings were expected to be more tense than usual. The first clashes occurred near the site of a flag-raising ceremony, where police rushed protesters, using pepper spray and beating some with batons in a bid to disperse them.
One woman was seen bleeding from a head wound after the clash. Police condemned "illegal acts" by protesters and accused them of having taken metal poles from nearby construction sites. Thirteen officers were taken to hospital after protesters threw an “unknown liquid” at them, which caused some to have breathing difficulties, according to police.
Speaking at the flag ceremony, Lam — appearing in public for the first time since June 18, when she apologized for her handling of the bill — again struck a conciliatory tone.
“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.”
The negative response to the extradition bill is in part motivated by fear that the policy would undermine the independence of Hong Kong’s legal system and pave the way for Beijing to clamp down on political dissent in the city. Under the terms of the 1997 handover agreement, Hong Kong is guaranteed its own independent legislature and judiciary, along with greater civil liberties than residents enjoy in Mainland China, including freedom of speech and assembly.
Concerns about Beijing backtracking on those guarantees sparked the 2014 “umbrella movement,” a 79-day pro-democracy occupation of the central business district that commanded international headlines, but did not win any concessions from Beijing or the government.
The extradition bill — and the police’s heavy-handed response to protests earlier this year, including the use of rubber bullets and tear gas — has effectively revived the city’s pro-democracy movement. Ahead of Monday’s march, the most high-profile of the student leaders from 2014 tweeted a message calling on Hong Kongers’ forgiveness for the chaos of the protests.
“We take full responsibility for this chaotic time,” Joshua Wong wrote, “but it is our duty to protect the freedom that defines Hong Kong.”
The youth-dominated protest movement has so far had strong public support, although a Hong Kong lawmaker, Fernando Cheung, told reporters Monday he feared the latest actions of hardcore protesters could trigger a backlash against their cause.
"This is a complete trap. I'm sorry that people played into it," he said.
The movement has already drawn its share of criticism from a vocal pro-Beijing minority. On Sunday, an estimated 50,000 people attended a pro-police rally in the central city. Demonstrators there were filmed tearing down pro-democracy posters.
Editor's note 7/1 10:46 a.m. ET: This story has been updated.
Cover: Protesters try to break the glass walls of the Legislative Council in Hong Kong on Monday, July 1, 2019. Combative protesters tried to break into the Hong Kong legislature Monday as a crowd of thousands prepared to start a march in that direction on the 22nd anniversary of the former British colony's return to China. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)