Street battles erupted as thousands in Hong Kong protested against China’s intervention in a dispute over whether two recently elected pro-independence politicians should be barred from taking office.
On Sunday scuffles broke out and police pepper-sprayed some demonstrators as they marched from Wan Chai district to the city’s central financial district, with several hundred pressing on to Beijing’s Liaison Office – where demonstrators charged metal fences set up by police.
“This is outrageous,” said Jay, a bespectacled 21-year-old student who wore a mask to protect himself against the pepper spray.
“The Chinese government is destroying Hong Kong’s judicial independence. It’s an attempt to control what we think. Even people who are against independence are coming out against this.”
Some protesters threw bottles at security forces and others hoisted open umbrellas in the air – a symbol reminiscent of student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 when hundreds of thousands came out and blocked key Hong Kong streets, attracting global attention.
Organisers put Sunday’s protest numbers at 11,000 and police said 8,000 turned out. A number of arrests were made.
Last week, China passed a ruling that could preclude politicians Yau Wai-ching and Baggio Leung from the opportunity to redo their swearing-in ceremonies in the city’s legislative council – since their oaths in October were rejected because they deliberately misread them to protest for greater sovereignty in Hong Kong.
Beijing’s law that could reshape the autonomous territory’s constitution came as courts in Hong Kong debated whether or not Yau and Baggio could retake their oaths. Both pledged allegiance to the “Hong Kong nation” and displayed a “Hong Kong is not China” banner during their swearing-in ceremonies.
The pair have been described by Chinese officials as a threat to their country’s sovereignty and security.
Beijing’s government has discussed invoking its rarely used power to interpret Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, to stop the two politicians from taking office.
Al Jazeera’s Divya Gopalan, reporting from Hong Kong, said the protesters view China’s intervention as a threat to the territory’s independence and autonomy.
“The way Hong Kong’s people see it … if Beijing is allowed to intervene in the constitution this time and change a piece of the law, overriding Hong Kong’s traditional system, they will be able to do it any time when they are unhappy with Hong Kong’s rule of law or any judicial decisions,” Gopalan said.
The situation is seen among many across Hong Kong’s legal and political elites as one of the biggest tests the global financial hub has faced since its handover to China, with some fearing its vaunted rule of law is under threat.
Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese control in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that gave the territory wide-ranging autonomy – including judicial freedom – under the Basic Law.