Protesters tried to storm Hong Kong’s legislature on the anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule on Monday, using a metal trolley and poles to smash windows amid anger over planned legislation that would allow extraditions to China.
Around 100 riot police in helmets and carrying batons stood behind the shattered glass as a small group of protesters rammed the windows ahead of a planned rally to mark the former British colony’s 1997 handover.
Tension was high as police held up a red banner warning protesters to stop charging or they would use force.
They had 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 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 and frustration at Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, posing the greatest popular challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
Tensions rose sharply once more in the semi-autonomous city on Monday morning after small groups of mainly young, masked protesters seized three key thoroughfares, deploying metal and plastic barriers to block the way.
Riot police with helmets and shields faced off against protesters in the Admiralty and Wanchai districts of the city.
At least one woman was seen bleeding from a head wound after the clashes and police made multiple arrests.
Anti-extradition protesters use makeshift shield to defend themselves during a clash with police
The ongoing rallies are the latest manifestation of growing fears that China is stamping down on the city’s freedoms and culture with the help of the finance hub’s pro-Beijing leaders.
Pro-democracy activists have organised a march every handover anniversary, calling for greater democratic freedoms – such as the right to elect the city’s leader.
They have mustered large crowds in recent years – including a two-month occupation in 2014 – but have failed to win any concessions from Beijing. Police officers pepper spray during a clash with anti-extradition protesters
This year’s rally comes against the backdrop of unprecedented anti-government protests over the past three weeks, and with the public angry over police using tear gas and rubber bullets to clear crowds.
Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, urged the Hong Kong authorities to respect the “rights and freedoms” of its citizens ahead of Monday’s protest rally.
“Recent protests in Hong Kong make it even more important on the anniversary of the handover to reiterate that the UK government’s commitment to the Sino-British declaration is unwavering,” said Mr Hunt.
The bilateral declaration was signed between the UK and China in 1984. It sets out a “one country, two systems” principle that guarantees Beijing’s communism will not be forced on Hong Kong and the city’s capitalist system and way of life will be preserved until 2047.
Police officers use baton to disperse anti-extradition protesters during a clash outside the Legislative Council Complex
“It is a legally binding treaty and remains as valid today as it did when it was signed and ratified over thirty years ago,” he said.
“It is imperative that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, and the rights and freedoms of the Hong Kong people, are fully respected in line with the joint declaration and the Hong Kong basic law,” he added.
Ms Lam has now suspended the extradition bill following the huge public backlash, but the demonstrations have morphed into a wider movement against her administration and Beijing.
The leader – who has kept out of the public eye since her climb-down and has record low approval ratings – attended a flag-raising ceremony on the harbour front early on Monday, marking the moment the city returned to Chinese ownership 22 years ago.
But she and other dignitaries observed from inside due to “inclement weather” – the first time in the ceremony’s history.
Her speech, which stuck to the conciliatory tone she has used in recent weeks, was briefly interrupted by an opposition lawmaker who shouted protests and was removed.
“What happened in recent months has caused conflicts and disputes between the government and residents,” Ms Lam said. “It has made me fully understand that as a politician, I need to be aware and accurately grasp the feelings of the people.”
Anti-extradition protesters push barricades toward police on a street during a stand-off outside the Legislative Council Complex
She then raised a champagne toast alongside cabinet officials and two of her predecessors.
With a ring of police and barriers around the square, demonstrators gathered in the roads outside the venue, jeering as a helicopter flying both the Hong Kong and Chinese flags flew by.
Protesters have multiple demands including that Ms Lam permanently abandon the extradition bill and that police drop any charges against demonstrators arrested in recent weeks.
Sam Mu, an artist, was with a small group of friends waving black flags on Monday morning outside the venue.
“It’s a symbol of how are city is falling,” he told AFP. “Our city’s freedoms are shrinking, it’s going in a more authoritarian direction.”
The pro-democracy rally is scheduled to take place on Monday afternoon, following the same route the two mass rallies last month took – from a park to the city’s legislature.
Permission for a separate pro-Beijing rally has been granted to start at the same time in the same park – raising fears of confrontations.
On Sunday, tens of thousands of pro-establishment protesters rallied in support of Hong Kong’s police.
Many waved Chinese flags and hurled insults at anti-government demonstrators camped nearby, highlighting the deep ideological fissures now dividing the finance hub.