Hundreds of protesters stormed Hong Kong's parliament late Monday as the territory marked its China handover anniversary, ransacking the building and daubing its walls with graffiti as police warned they were poised to use "appropriate force" to clear the area.
The protesters took over the legislative chamber, spray-painting slogans on the wall and over the territory's emblem and unfurling a British colonial flag and a banner that read: "Bow to protect rule of law. Oppose extradition."
"There are no violent protesters, just tyranny," another banner hoisted above the podium read.
"Hong Kong is not China," read another.
Some stood on the desks of lawmakers while others climbed up to leave their messages on the soaring wooden wall. Police appear to have retreated to avoid a confrontation, giving the protesters the run of the building. They smashed and tore down portraits of legislative leaders after prying open metal gates to gain access.
The clash prompted organizers to change the endpoint of the protest march from the legislature to a nearby park, after police asked them to either call it off or change the route. Police wanted the march to end earlier in the Wan Chai district, but organizers said that would leave out many people who planned to join the march along the way.
The financial hub has been plunged into unprecedented political chaos after three weeks of record-breaking demonstrations against a hugely unpopular bill that would allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland.
The protesters are opposed to a government attempt to change extradition laws to allow suspects to be sent to China to face trial. The proposed legislation, on which debate has been suspended indefinitely, increased fears of eroding freedoms in the territory, which Britain returned to China on July 1, 1997.
British Foreign Secretary said Monday the U.K.'s support for Hong Kong and "its freedoms is unwavering," but warned anti-government protesters against violence.
The prime ministerial candidate tweeted "to stress UK support for Hong Kong and its freedoms is UNWAVERING on this anniversary day."
"No violence is acceptable but HK people MUST preserve right to peaceful protest exercised within the law, as hundreds of thousands of brave people showed today," he added.
Protesters want the bills formally withdrawn and Hong Kong's embattled leader, Carrie Lam, to resign.
Lam, who has come under withering criticism for trying to push the legislation through, pledged to be more responsive to public sentiment.
In an address after a flag-raising ceremony marking the anniversary of the handover, she said a series of protests in recent weeks and two marches that attracted hundreds of thousands of participants have taught her that she needs to listen better to youth and people in general.
"This has made me fully realize that I, as a politician, have to remind myself all the time of the need to grasp public sentiments accurately," she told the gathering in the city's cavernous convention center.
She insisted her government has good intentions, but said "I will learn the lesson and ensure that the government's future work will be closer and more responsive to the aspirations, sentiments and opinions of the community."
Security guards pushed pro-democracy lawmaker Helena Wong out of the room as she shouted at Lam to resign and withdraw the "evil" legislation. She later told reporters she was voicing the grievances and opinions of the protesters, who could not get into the event.
The annual July 1 march is expected to be larger than usual because of the extradition bill controversy, which has awakened broader concerns that China is chipping away at the rights guaranteed to Hong Kong for 50 years under a "one country, two systems" framework. The two marches in June drew more than a million people, according to organizer estimates.
Jimmy Sham, a leader of the pro-democracy group that organized the march, told the crowd that Lam had not responded to their demands because she is not democratically elected. The leader of Hong Kong is chosen by a committee dominated by pro-China elites.
"We know that Carrie Lam can be so arrogant," Sham said, rallying the crowd under a blazing sun before the start of the march at Victoria Park. "She is protected by our flawed system."
The protesters are also demanding an independent inquiry into police actions during a June 12 protest, when officers used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse a demonstration that blocked the legislature on the day that debate on the bill had been scheduled to resume.
The police say the use of force was justified, but since then have largely adopted softer tactics, even as protesters besieged police headquarters in recent days, pelting it with eggs and spray-painting slogans on its outer walls.
The area around Golden Bauhinia Square, where the flag-raising ceremony took place, was blocked off from Saturday to prevent protesters from gathering to disrupt it. Before the morning ceremony, protesters trying to force their way to the square were driven back by officers with plastic shields and batons, the retreating protesters pointing open umbrellas to ward off pepper spray.
"We are horrified, this is our obligation to do this, we are protecting our home," said Jack, a 26-year-old office worker who would only give his first name. "I don't know why the government is harming us. It's harming the rule of law, the rule of law is the last firewall between us and the Chinese Communist Party."
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