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Hong Kong police move to forcibly clear protesters occupying legislature complex

The Washington Post's Shibani Mahtani reports from Hong Kong as huge government protests took place on the 22nd anniversary of the territory’s return to China. (Video: The Washington Post)

HONG KONG — Police used force early Tuesday to clear thousands of protesters in and around Hong Kong’s legislative building after some broke in and occupied it Monday, the 22nd anniversary of the semiautonomous city’s return to Chinese rule.

The escalation has brought Hong Kong into unprecedented and uncertain territory, and represents the biggest test of Beijing’s grip over the global financial hub and the status under which it operates.

On Tuesday morning, Hong Kong’s streets were reopened, the rush-hour traffic flowing through like on any other day.

But outside the Legislative Council building, piles of broken umbrellas, traffic cones and jumbled barricades zip-tied together by protesters littered the sidewalk. Cleanup and repair operations, which are expected to take weeks, had begun with garbage trucks carting away the wreckage. Police officers stood around the perimeter of the building, where tempered-glass doors and windows shattered by demonstrators had been cordoned off by flimsy blue-and-white tape. Graffiti denouncing the police could be seen just inside the major public entrance to the building.

Mostly young protesters on Monday smashed their way through metal barricades and glass doors surrounding the Legislative Council building. As they wrote graffiti on walls, tore down portraits of pro-Beijing officials and emptied rooms of chairs and desks, they pushed weeks of tensions and mass demonstrations here to a new level. 

The demonstrators occupying the complex wrote a declaration that included a call for overthrowing the “puppet Legislative Council and the Government,” and they vowed to stay. But just after midnight Tuesday, police equipped with riot shields, tear gas and projectiles began removing protesters from streets surrounding the complex, sending them fleeing. Officers then retook the complex, stopping and frisking thosewho remained nearby. 

More than 500,000 demonstrators marched peacefully across the city Monday and forced major thoroughfares to shut down.

The scenes of defiance were the latest indication that anger here, sparked by plans to allow extraditions to China but now incorporating broader concerns about Hong Kong’s autonomy and Beijing’s influence, will not be easily quelled. 

The protesters smashed shutters, broke windows and ripped down metal fencing around the Legislative Council building, eventually forcing their way in. They repeatedly tried to slam against metal shutters and pry them open as riot police stood guard.

At some point during the evening, officers appeared to vacate their posts. By 9:30 p.m., dozens of demonstrators wearing yellow hard hats and carrying umbrellas — a symbol of 2014 pro-democracy protests — had entered the building and were roaming the complex. They spray-painted wood-paneled walls with graffiti cursing the Hong Kong government. Outside, protesters cheered as more windows and doors were broken. 

Later Monday night, police said the building had been “violently attacked” and “illegally entered.” In a tweet, they warned that they would conduct a sweep with “reasonable force” and urged people to leave the area. 

Protesters broke through Hong Kong's government building July 1, shattering a glass panel and removing metal fencing, amidst a fresh wave of protests. (Video: Reuters)

The Hong Kong government condemned the “violent acts” as the work of “radical protesters.” At a 4 a.m. news conference with the city’s police chief, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam criticized protesters for vandalizing the Legislative Council building.

“I hope community at large will agree with us that with these violent acts that we have seen, it is right for us to condemn it and hope society will return to normal as soon as possible,” she said.

Protesters, however, vowed to press on.

“Unless universal suffrage and a just election system are in place, we shall never stand down,” they said in a statement. 

Monday’s chaotic demonstrations came the day that officially marks the territory’s return to Beijing.

Before dawn, riot police and hundreds of protesters had gathered on roads leading to a square where the Hong Kong and Chinese flags were set to be raised. The ceremony, which was attended by Hong Kong leaders and dignitaries including Lam, was moved indoors as protesters gathered. Officials said the event, which had never been held inside before, was moved because of “inclement weather.” 

As helicopters carrying the flags flew over, protesters waved middle fingers at them. Earlier in the morning, demonstrators had replaced a Chinese flag with a black flag featuring a withered Bauhinia flower, a riff on the Hong Kong flag. That flag was still flying on Monday night. 

Hospitals and police have not confirmed the number of injuries from the clashes. Police said in a statement that protesters earlier Monday had pelted officers with objects containing an “unknown liquid,” which made their skin swollen and itchy. Thirteen officers were treated at a hospital and discharged. 

Protesters trying to force their way into the Hong Kong Legislative Council building on July 1 shielded themselves with umbrellas from pepper spray. (Video: Goofrider via Storyful)

In recent years, the July 1 anniversary of the 1997 handover of sovereignty has been marked by marches featuring hundreds of thousands of people who want to uphold Hong Kong’s unique status, democratic characteristics and relative freedoms compared with those of mainland China.

But after weeks of spiraling tensions in the territory, Monday’s protests took on a different flavor. In the face of an increasingly assertive Beijing, protesters viewed the occasion as their final chance for a massive stand against a government they believe is not working in their interests.

“We are exhausted,” said a 22-year-old protester who did not want to give his name for fear of retribution from authorities. “But today’s march is special. We think it will be the last one that people will come out [to] on a large scale. We have to show our disappointment and anger.”

An hour into the planned afternoon march, police sent out a warning, discouraging people from joining the procession.

“Police absolutely respect people’s freedom of assembly, procession and expression of opinion in a peaceful and orderly manner,” the statement said. “However, Police’s risk assessment indicates that there is a serious safety threat.”

Yet demonstrators turned up in the tens of thousands, filling Hong Kong’s main roads with a swell of shuffling people once again. Some in the march — the elderly, parents with children — broke off to join the young protesters gathered on Harcourt Road, the main city thoroughfare that they have taken over several times in the past month.

They carried signs that read “We Shall Never Surrender” and “Hong Kong Is Resilient.” 

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam is facing the wrath of her people. Beijing may be even angrier.

Lam has postponed the extradition plans, but demonstrators have continued to return to the streets in rallies like the one held Monday — the revival of a pro-democracy movement that is now advocating for a freer Hong Kong, for Lam to step down and for police to be investigated for their handling of the street protests, among other demands. 

The protests were once again well organized. Participants set up first-aid, water and food stations, and used hand signals to indicate police mobilization or use of pepper spray. Demonstrators urged one another and members of the public not to take photos of the crowd to ensure their anonymity.

As protesters attempted for hours to storm the legislative building, human chains passed supplies including umbrellas, gloves, helmets and protective masks to assist their efforts. 

Masks, cash and apps: How Hong Kong’s protesters find ways to outwit the surveillance state

More than 80 people were injured in a clash between police and protesters in mid-June, drawing the ire of many in Hong Kong who turned up at a large rally days later to denounce what they consider police brutality against students.

Police appeared initially restrained on Monday by contrast. 

Inside a convention center where the anniversary ceremony was held in the morning, Lam, flanked by Hong Kong and Chinese officials, raised a glass of champagne to toast the occasion. At a reception that followed, she said that she had reflected on the disputes and that she understands “the need to grasp public sentiments accurately.”

“After this incident, I will learn the lessons and ensure that the government’s future work will be closer and more responsive to the aspirations, sentiments and opinions of the community,” she said. Work to make Hong Kong’s governance “more open and accommodating” will start immediately, she added. 

She has not indicated that she would step down or fully withdraw the extradition plans. Analysts and some in her government say she has angered Beijing by misjudging the widespread and vociferous opposition to the extradition bill.

Other demonstrators, however, have marched to back the police. On Sunday, thousands showed up in support of the Hong Kong police and expressed appreciation for their efforts in managing the civil disobedience in recent weeks. 

In mainland China, there was no mention of Monday’s protests on social media. State media played up news of Sunday’s pro-police rally and highlighted official celebrations of the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return. 

On several prior occasions, protesters surrounded and blocked off the police headquarters, threw eggs at the building and spray-painted surveillance cameras.

Pro-democracy protesters think that Hong Kong’s relative autonomy, which is guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” framework, is at stake. Many here want Hong Kong to be able to choose its own leader and to abolish the current system in which chief executives such as Lam are selected by a committee, out of a small pool of candidates handpicked by Beijing. 

Lam, speaking Monday, said Hong Kong is “backed by the motherland and open to the world” and has benefited from the “one country, two systems” framework.

“I and the [Hong Kong] government will double our efforts to restore people’s confidence and get Hong Kong off to a new start,” she added. 

The 22-year-old protester, however, scoffed at Lam’s comments, dismissing her as a pawn of Beijing. 

“She has not responded to us, or learned how to engage with us,” he said. 

Yuan Wang in Beijing contributed to this report. 

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