Hong Kong, China – Hundreds of protesters stormed into the legislature as riot police retreated, spray painting slogans and ripping down portraits as anti-government action escalated on Monday.
Protesters smashed glass and forced their way into the entrance of the Legislative Council building, adding to tensions with police on the anniversary of the city’s return to mainland China.
They broke through another door earlier by ramming a metal cart against the glass, prompting the police to retaliate with pepper spray.
Protesters had gathered around the territory’s Central Government Offices (CGO) complex since Monday morning, moving crowd control barriers to block several streets leading to the site.
The dawn protests, which follow several weeks of demonstrations over a controversial extradition bill that would allow suspects to be sent to the mainland for trial, come as the former British territory marks the Special Administrative Region Establishment Day, the day it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Less than a kilometre from the unrest, the local government under Chief Executive Carrie Lam continued preparations for a ceremony to mark the handover at Golden Bauhinia Square, setting up water-filled barricades designed to minimise disruption from those demonstrating.
Lam, who has largely kept out of sight since announcing on June 18 she would suspend the extradition bill, appeared to strike a more conciliatory note at the ceremony, saying that the protests showed she needed to listen better to the public, particularly young people.
Breaking with tradition, the event took place inside rather than outside with the government blaming the weather for the decision.
Rival marches expected
By Monday afternoon, thousands of people were making their way to the city’s Victoria Park from where they planned to march to the CGO complex.
Wong Yik Mo, a spokesman for the organisers, the Civil Human Rights Front, told journalists the rally was to press for Lam’s resignation and for the bill to be withdrawn completely.
He said he was aware of clashes being reported, but said he believed those taking part in the rally would remain calm.
“When we fight for democracy and freedom, we fight for the people,” Wong said. “But it’s important to respect everyone. We hope everyone stays safe.”
The July 1 march is an annual event in the city, but this year’s event is expected to dwarf previous rallies as the city goes through one of the most tumultuous political periods in its recent history.
“This is the culmination of a whole series of actions that the government has taken in recent years that increasingly restrict our political space, cut to the heart of ‘one country, two systems’ and restrict the sense of freedom and civil liberties we thought we could enjoy under the Basic Law,” former Chief Secretary Anson Chan told Al Jazeera.
The Basic Law is the territory’s de facto constitution, which was agreed by China and the United Kingdom – the former colonial government – and is supposed to guarantee the city’s autonomy for 50 years. Critics say that China’s encroachments on the city’s freedoms over the past two decades violate that agreement.
Early arrivals in the park were pushed onto the grass because the larger section of concrete sports pitches was occupied by the Greater Bay Festival, a government-sponsored fair to celebrate the public holiday.
Some of the protesters wore yellow cardboard visors calling for Lam to quit and democracy for all. Raymond Ng, a 58-year-old retiree, said he had decided to join the march – for the first time since political tensions escalated in early June – because he wanted to see the extradition bill shelved permanently.
“Right now, it’s just been suspended,” he said. “For the sake of Hong Kong, it needs to be cancelled.”
A counterprotest has also been given a permit to gather in the park, leading to fears of clashes between pro and anti-government groups.
The two sides exchanged insults on Sunday around the CGO complex, as groups of pro-Beijing loyalists waved Chinese flags and partially removed a makeshift memorial to an anti-government protester who died two weeks ago after he fell while attempting to string up a banner.
The anti-government march is just one of several massive demonstrations that the city has seen in recent weeks, the largest of which, organisers say, was attended by more than two million people – equivalent to about a quarter of the territory’s population.
Other unsanctioned street demonstrations this month have seen violent clashes with police, who used pepper spray and tear gas among other dispersal techniques, against the demonstrators. In the wake of the violence, Britain last week banned the sale of tear gas to Hong Kong.
Much of the protesters’ ire is directed towards the amendment to the extradition law, which would have seen suspects in the city liable to be transferred to jurisdictions with whom Hong Kong has no extradition treaty – including mainland China where courts are notoriously opaque and beholden to the ruling Communist Party.
But the protesters are also demanding the release of some of the people who were arrested in the aftermath of one of the unofficial protests, an apology for what they see as heavy-handed police tactics, and a reversal of the official terminology, which classed the clashes as a “riot”.
Describing the unrest as a riot could have harsher legal implications for those arrested.
With additional reporting from AFP