Hundreds of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong have stormed into the legislative council complex over a controversial extradition bill as the financial hub further plunges into crisis.
Following some six hours of intense standoff between angry protesters and riot police, masked demonstrators on Monday afternoon stormed into the parliament building after successfully smashing their way through reinforced glass windows and steel shutters with metal trolleys and poles.
Riot police, with gas masks and shields, who had earlier in the day used pepper spray and batons to disperse protesters and tried to block their way to the parliament, retreated deeper inside the complex, practically paving the way for demonstrators to finally take over the parliament’s main debating chamber in the evening.
Protesters also daubed the walls of the chamber with graffiti and fixed a British colonial-era flag to the main podium, chanting slogans and painted black the city’s coat of arms. They also hoisted a black and white banner in the chamber that read in Chinese: “Bow to protect rule of law. Oppose extradition.”
“We know that this is breaking the law, but we have no choice,” a 24-year-old protester said.
The unprecedented incident occurred hours after the government held a ceremony commemorating the 22nd anniversary of the territory’s return to China from Britain. For the past three weeks, the city has been rocked by historic demonstrations against a hugely unpopular bill – now suspended – that would allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” deal that guarantees it a level of autonomy, including a separate and independent legal system.
Hong Kong has recently been the scene of violent protests over an amendment to the city’s law, which would have allowed extradition to mainland China. The US and Britain were among the Western nations who opposed the change in law.
The massive protest rallies are the latest expression of increasing fears that China is allegedly stamping down on the city’s rights and liberties, unseen on the mainland, with the help of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leaders.
The three-week protests also brought havoc, forcing the closure of government offices on a number of occasions and creating chaos as demonstrators blocked roads and besieged police headquarters.
Some reports also said that beyond the public outcry, the contested extradition bill has spooked some of the city’s tycoons into beginning to transfer their personal wealth abroad.