HONG KONG: Hong Kong protesters smashed windows of the Legislative Council on the anniversary of the city`s 1997 return to Chinese rule on Monday amid widespread anger over planned laws that would allow extraditions to China, plunging the city deeper into chaos.
A small group, mostly students wearing hard hats and masks, used a metal trolley, poles and pieces of scaffolding to hack through reinforced glass at the government compound near the heart of the financial centre.
Riot police in helmets and carrying batons fired pepper spray in response in a standoff that lasted into the sweltering heat of the evening. The protesters make several charges at the building, take a break, and then try again.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam suspended the bill on June 15 after some of the largest and most violent protests in decades but stopped short of protesters` demands to scrap it. The Beijing-backed leader is now clinging on to her job at a time of an unprecedented backlash against the government and a series of mass protests that pose the greatest popular challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
"In the past few years, people have been getting more active, because they found the peaceful way is not working," said a 24-year-old protester surnamed Chen.
Opponents of the bill, which would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party, fear it is a threat to Hong Kong`s much-cherished rule of law and are demanding it be scrapped and Lam step down.
Hong Kong returned to China under a "one country, two systems" formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including freedom to protest and an independent judiciary. Beijing denies interfering but, for many Hong Kong residents, the extradition bill is the latest step in a relentless march towards mainland control.
China has been angered by criticism from Western capitals, including Washington and London, about the legislation. Beijing said on Monday that Britain had no responsibility for Hong Kong any more and was opposed to its "gesticulating" about the territory.
Tens of thousands marched in temperatures of around 33 degrees Celsius (91.4°F) from Victoria Park in an annual rally that organisers hoped would get a boost from the anger over the extradition bill. Protesters, many carrying umbrellas, thronged streets calling on Lam to step down and for the bill to be scrapped. Many clapped as protesters held up a poster of Lam inside a bamboo cage.
Tension was high as police earlier raced towards protesters, beating some with batons as they fell to the ground, and used pepper spray to try to disperse crowds gathered near where officials were preparing a flag-raising ceremony to mark the handover. More than a million people have taken to the streets at times over the past three weeks to vent their anger.
The protesters, some with cling film wrapped around their arms to protect their skin in the event of tear gas, once again paralysed parts of the Asian financial hub as they occupied roads after blocking them off with metal barriers.
Weeks of unrest forced nervous authorities to deploy a massive security blanket around the waterfront Convention and Exhibition Centre, the venue of the flag-raising ceremony. A tired-looking Lam appeared in public for the first time in nearly two weeks, flanked by her husband and former Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa.
"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 realise that I, as a politician, have to remind myself all the time of the need to grasp public sentiment accurately."
PROTEST MOVEMENT REINVIGORATED
Beijing`s grip over Hong Kong has intensified markedly since Xi took power and after pro-democracy street protests that gripped the city in 2014 but failed to wrestle concessions from China. The extradition bill has sent jitters across all sectors of Hong Kong in an unprecedented backlash against the government.
Tensions spiralled on June 12 when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at anti-extradition protesters near the heart of the city, sending plumes of smoke billowing among some of the world`s tallest skyscrapers.
The uproar over the bill has reignited a protest movement that had lost steam after the failed 2014 demonstrations that led to the arrests of hundreds of activists.
Activists raised a black bauhinia flag to half-mast outside the Legislative Council building before the rally and turned Hong Kong`s official flag, featuring a white bauhinia flower on a red background, upside down.
The turmoil comes at a delicate time for Beijing, which is grappling with a trade dispute with the United States, a faltering economy and tensions in the South China Sea.
Opponents of the extradition bill fear it would put them at the mercy of China`s justice system, where human rights are not guaranteed. Beyond the public outcry, the extradition bill has spooked some of Hong Kong`s tycoons into starting to move their personal wealth offshore, according to financial advisers, bankers and lawyers familiar with the details.