Hong Kong‘s leader has condemned “the extreme use of violence” by protesters who stormed and vandalised the Legislative Council building on the 22nd anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain to China.
Police restored control early on Tuesday after street clashes with protesters at the end of a day of unrest.
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Demonstrators in their hundreds overran the Chinese territory’s parliament late on Monday, smashing walls, spray-painting graffiti, and taking over the chamber as the weeks-long crisis over a controversial extradition bill came to a head.
In a pre-dawn press conference, Lam, the city’s Beijing-appointed Chief Executive, described the scenes of vandalism as “heartbreaking and shocking”.
“This is something we should seriously condemn because nothing is more important than the rule of law in Hong Kong,” she said, with the city’s police chief Stephen Lo by her side.
Lo added: “Protesters’ violent acts have far exceeded the bottom line of peaceful expressions of demands.”
China regarded the violent actions of some protesters in Hong Kong as an “undisguised challenge” to the “one country, two systems” formula under which the city is ruled, state television reported on Tuesday.
A representative of China’s Hong Kong affairs office condemned the violence of some protesters who are angered by a proposed extradition bill and said Beijing supports the Hong Kong government to hold violent criminals responsible, the report said.
Earlier, the state-run newspaper dismissed the protests as “mob violence”.
“Chinese society is all too aware that a zero-tolerance policy is the only remedy for such destructive behaviour,” the Global Times daily wrote in an editorial.
“Otherwise, and without this policy, it would be similar to opening a Pandora’s box, upending social disorder,” it warned.
The authorities earlier warned demonstrators to clear the building immediately, calling the occupation “illegal”.
Riot police apparently retreated as hundreds of demonstrators streamed into the building after a small group of mostly students wearing hard hats and masks used a metal trolley, poles and scaffolding to batter the compound’s reinforced glass doors until it gave way.
“We have marched, staged sit-ins… but the government has remained unmoved,” Joey, a 26-year-old protester, told AFP news agency as she walked over shattered glass inside the building.
“We have to show the government that we won’t just sit here and do nothing.”
The Legislative Council remained closed on Tuesday as police inspected the damage inside the building, while workers waited outside to begin a clean-up.
“Unfortunately, some governments don’t want democracy,” he added, in an apparent swipe at Beijing.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed “unwavering” support for “Hong Kong and its freedoms” but urged restraint from protesters.
Police estimated 190,000 people joined a peaceful march throughout the city on Monday, the third major march in as many weeks. Protest leaders told Al Jazeera about 550,000 people had taken part in the annual July 1 march, dwarfing previous rallies.
A protester in his early 20s, who gave his name as M, told Al Jazeera from inside the legislative chamber that many planned to remain in the building overnight and their storming of the building was “inevitable” as authorities had ignored previous peaceful protests.
The increasingly hardline tactics have divided Hong Kongers, with some calling for the protesters to focus on finding common ground with government supporters.
Martin Lee, the founding chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, said that while he could not defend the protesters’ violent actions on Monday night, he could understand their frustrations.
“I don’t like these ugly scenes; nobody likes them and I will not defend them,” he told Al Jazeera. “But I want people to know what brought about such acts of violence.”
Steve Tsang, the director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said the actions of protesters were “not helping their cause” and Hong Kong was “getting to a point of danger”.
“If they keep on with the way they are doing it [protesting], then the risk of the Chinese government taking much more drastic action gets that much closer,” he told Al Jazeera.
“It is not in the interest of Hong Kong to force a situation where Beijing feels it has to take direct actions to intervene”.
Tsang added while the majority in Hong Kong supported the removal of the extradition bill, the actions of protesters threatened to divide the territory’s pro-democracy movement.
Weeks of protests
Protests first began last month over an extradition bill that would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China for trial.
Chief Executive Lam suspended the controversial bill on June 18 after some of the largest and most violent demonstrations the city had seen in decades – with millions attending – but she ignored protesters’ demands to scrap it entirely.
The city leader is now clinging to her job as protesters call for her resignation at a time of unprecedented backlash against the government, which poses the greatest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” framework that allows the territory freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including the freedom to protest and an independent judiciary.
Opponents of the extradition bill fear it is a threat to Hong Kong’s much-cherished rule of law and would allow Beijing to target opponents.