Hong Kong Protests Explained: Anti-China Demonstrators Overrun Legislature Building, Police Retreat

Anti-government protesters in Hong Kong have overrun the city's Legislative Council building in the city center amid intense demonstrations against the pro-Beijing government.

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents took to the streets again on Monday to mark the anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997. The number of protesters is believed to have been lower than the two huge marches held last month, but the action was the most aggressive yet.

Monday's violence comes after weeks of tensions between the pro-Beijing government led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam and the city's residents. Discontent over a proposed bill that would allow the extradition of criminals from Hong Kong to mainland China eventually boiled over into mass action.

Opponents feared the proposed legislation would enable Beijing to target its political opponents in the territory and undermine the "one country, two systems" agreement active since Hong Kong was handed back to Chinese control. This system affords Hong Kong residents greater personal and political freedoms than those living on the mainland.

Though the government eventually shelved the proposal, it did not commit to its full withdrawal. Activists are now also demanding a total cancellation of the bill and Lam's resignation. Monday's anniversary offered a fresh chance for anti-government groups to make their voices heard.

The day began with skirmishes between pro-democracy protesters and police at a morning flag-raising ceremony marking the anniversary, in which several demonstrators and police were injured, the BBC reported.

Tens of thousands of people then braved sweltering afternoon temperatures to march through the city center and close down major roads, the Associated Press reported. They came prepared for trouble, wearing helmets and masks and carrying supplies.

In the afternoon, hundreds of mostly young activists surrounded the Legislative Council building—known as the LegCo—the Guardian reported. Eventually some began smashing the building's windows using metal trolleys and poles, despite police stationed inside the building trying to stop them.

Over a period of several hours, activists chipped away at windows and the supporting metal poles, opening up holes in the side of the building.

The police, who were condemned by Hong Kong residents following violent suppression of the anti-Beijing protests last month, this time retreated rather than force the crowds back. Nonetheless, there were reports of pepper spray, tear gas and batons being used against frontline activists.

Once the police retreated from their positions, protesters had free rein of the government HQ. Images and video shot inside the building showed helmeted and masked crowds vandalizing offices, defacing portraits of legislative leaders and spray-painting security cameras.

Protesters were using umbrellas to cover the faces of activists and hide the vandalism from cameras. Umbrellas became a potent symbol of pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong during 2014 protests, when marchers used their umbrellas for defense against police pepper spray.

The activists eventually made their way to the legislative chamber, where they stood in the aisles and on lawmakers' desks cheering. Some waved British flags—a message of defiance against Beijing's rule over Hong Kong. Others spray-painted graffiti on the walls of the chamber and another painted over the special administrative region's emblem high on the chamber walls.

BREAKING Dozens of HK protesters have entered the Legco chamber pic.twitter.com/Cl5nd3f4sF

— Phila Siu (Bobby) (@phila_siu) July 1, 2019

Inside the legislative chamber. pic.twitter.com/6fSzXwo5YC

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Another group unfurled a black banner inside the chamber which read: "There are no rioters, only a violent regime," the Guardian explained.

But at least one politician warned that the protesters may have played into a government-set trap. CNN reporter James Griffiths spoke with pro-democracy lawmaker Fernando Cheung inside the chamber. Cheung said police could have easily cleared the protesters from the building but allowed them to take control. "This is a complete trap," he said. "I'm sorry that people played into it."

After being criticized for heavy-handed policing last month, it could be that officers have this time been ordered to allow protesters to run riot and incriminate themselves.

"Public sentiment was starting to turn against the youth protesters after repeated sieges of police HQ," Griffiths wrote. "This will seal that. Though protesters have such numbers they may not care what middle aged pro Dems think."

Hong Kong police issued a statement via Facebook vowing to clear protesters using "an appropriate level of force." The statement condemned the "rioters who violently mobbed and forcibly entered the Legislative Council" and urged all those in the building to leave before officers began clearing operations.

Hong Kong, China, protests, pro-democracy
Protesters smash glass doors and windows of the Legislative Council building on July 1, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Anthony Kwan/Getty