Beijing has largely sought to downplay the demonstrations that have highlighted doubts about the validity of its formula for governing the former British colony. Its coverage of the protests and the publication of a harsh editorial in the official Communist Party newspaper Global Times may indicate it is prepared to take a tougher line.
“These violent assailants in their arrogance pay no heed to Hong Kong’s law, no doubt arousing the anger and sadness of all people of the city of Hong Kong,” the editorial said.
Footage aired on Tuesday showed police moving into roads surrounding the council where the city’s limited parliament takes place, showing where protesters had smashed through glass and metal barriers to occupy the building for about three hours.
Beijing had sought to suppress news of the weeks of protests coinciding with celebrations of Chinese rule. July 1, 1997 marked the end of the territory’s British rule.
The demonstrations reflect mounting frustration with Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam for not responding to citizen demands after several weeks of protests against the government’s attempt to change extradition laws to allow suspects to be sent to China for trial.
Hong Kong riot police with tear gas moved into the city’s parliament shortly after midnight after protesters smashed their way into the chamber and raised the colonial flag on Monday night.
Lowy Institute analyst Ben Bland said raising the colonial flag was unlikely to be a call for return to British rule and “more a gesture of defiance to antagonise Beijing”.
Hong Kong lawyer and author Antony Dapiran said: “This is clearly a serious provocation to the Hong Kong government and the authorities in Beijing who will be mortified to see the very seat of government and related symbols defaced by the protesters.”
“I would expect this will be met forcefully by the HK government in terms of arrests and prosecutions, and I think makes it even more unlikely that the HK government would – or Beijing would permit them to – accede to the protesters’ demands,” Dapiran said.
Pro-democracy politicians had urged a group of hundreds of protesters that had amassed outside the Legislative Council not to storm the building, warning they faced prison sentences of up to 10 years.
One man, exposing his face to media cameras by removing the mask and goggles worn by most protesters, had declared, “Hong Kongers already have nothing to lose”.
The protesters demanded universal suffrage, an escalation of earlier demands for the extradition bill to be completely withdrawn, and an independent investigation held into police violence against protesters.
South China Morning Post journalist Shirley Zhao wrote on Twitter: “I’m at a loss for words on what’s happening. Watching youngsters smashing everything in the [legislative council] legco, where probably lawmakers they elected were disqualified, I sense desperation, confusion and uncertainty, much like the city itself.”
The protests against the extradition bill are apparently leaderless, but one of the multiple democracy groups involved is Demosisto, whose student founders had been elected to the Legislative Council in 2016 but then swiftly kicked out again on Beijing’s orders for disrespecting China when taking oaths.
Some protesters sprayed slogans declaring “Sunflower HK”, a reference to the Taiwan student movement that occupied Taiwan’s Parliament in 2014.
“The LegCo building was violently attacked… the police severely condemned the violent attack,” police said in a statement.
Yet for several hours on Monday evening, police had largely withdrawn from the scene, allowing the protesters to enter the building.
Some politicians declared it had been a trap that the young protesters had walked into. Labour politician Fernando Cheung told the South China Morning Post the scenes would lead to a public backlash. “This is a complete trap, I’m sorry that people played into it,” he said.
He told the BBC the police could have earlier dispelled the protesters but had “purposely allowed them to break into the building and vandalise it”.
But at a 4am press conference on Tuesday police chief Stephen Lo denied the claims and said his officers had been under siege from protesters who had used violent tactics.
Appearing next to Lo at the press conference, Lam said: “We are here to highlight how shocked we are.”
She said the scenes of violence and vandalism “really saddens and shocks a lot of people.. this is something that we should seriously condemn, because nothing is more important than the rule of law in Hong Kong.”
Pro-Beijing legislators also condemned the violence and vandalism.
Regina Ip, a former security secretary in the semi-autonomous territory, said such behaviour was not acceptable in “civilised society.”
She said there was nothing that could justify “the sort of violence we saw last night.”
with Reuters, AP
Kirsty Needham is China Correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.