Friday 18 October 2019

Riot police end Hong Kong siege

Challenge to power: Protesters smash their way into the Hong Kong government buildings yesterday. Photo: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images
Challenge to power: Protesters smash their way into the Hong Kong government buildings yesterday. Photo: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

Laurel Chor

Spraying graffiti and expletives on the walls, smashing glass windows and destroying furniture, hundreds of masked young protesters rampaged through the heart of Hong Kong's parliament in scenes of unprecedented chaos.

Weeks of mass protests against a controversial extradition bill finally erupted in rage as demonstrators - some in their teens - wearing hard hats rammed through the glass doors of the Legislative Council with metal trolleys and poles, wrenched open metal shutters and poured into the building.

Dissent: Protesters react to a tear gas fired by police outside the Legislative Council building. Photo: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Dissent: Protesters react to a tear gas fired by police outside the Legislative Council building. Photo: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Their three-hour siege ended shortly after midnight in a terrifying confrontation with hundreds of riot police, wielding batons and shields, who suddenly rushed at protesters firing tear gas into the air.

The extraordinary live broadcasts of demonstrators swarming through the chambers, scrawling "Hong Kong is not China" slogans and defacing portraits of pro-Beijing legislators, took place 22 years to the day that Britain ceded Hong Kong to China.

In footage that would no doubt have infuriated Beijing, they were seen destroying mounted images of Hong Kong's regional emblem and flying the city's former colonial flag as they flooded through the chambers chanting "Hong Kong Add Oil", a protest slogan meaning "Keep on going".

The largely peaceful protests throughout the day had taken a dramatic turn at around 9pm when a hardcore group of agitated young people finally breached a floor-to-ceiling steel shutter protecting the inside of the building.

Riot police had been standing behind the metal curtain, barking warnings at protesters that they would be arrested if they moved forward, but they suddenly and inexplicably retreated inside the corridors and away from the building as the crowd broke through.

The protesters had paid little heed to the warnings. Throughout the day, several had told journalists they were desperate and willing to risk jail, and some even their lives, to protect Hong Kong's democracy and freedoms for future generations.

The draft extradition bill, currently suspended but not fully withdrawn, would for the first time allow alleged criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial.

Its withdrawal has been the focus of massive marches and wildcat protests across the city in recent weeks, but it has also morphed into the symbol of wider disquiet in Hong Kong about the steady erosion of human rights under Beijing's "one country, two systems" policy.

A coalition of protest groups, which has no central leadership and has been fuelled by online chat groups, has demanded the bill's total withdrawal, the resignation of Carrie Lam, the chief executive, and accountability for alleged police violence against demonstrators on June 12.

Yesterday's protests saw a split between a larger body of people who took over the streets of downtown Hong Kong in a traditional march and a smaller group of radical protesters who channelled their pent-up rage over the government's failure to meet their demands into more drastic action.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of thousands of people had turned out to participate in a planned rally to express their opposition to the government. It was a familiar scene after recent marches have, according to organisers, exceeded two million people.

Yesterday's crowd represented several generations from all walks of life.

Ming (50) a business owner, said: "I have marched all three times. I completely support the young people and their ideals and ambitions, which is for the good of Hong Kong.

"Seeing these young people like this, if I didn't come out, I couldn't have that on my conscience. I'm in my 50s, what can we do for these young people? One thing we can do is come out and march."

Gary (35) a teacher, said: "I wanted to add to the crowd numbers so that the government could hear the dissatisfaction of so many people."

The Civil Human Rights Front, one of the leading protest groups, claimed yesterday's rally had drawn 550,000 people, but as night fell, the main event was quickly eclipsed by the takeover of the seat of government, and its frightening conclusion.

Towards the end of the day scenes turned violent, with protesters using heavy tools to break the glass at the Legislative Council, aggressively blocking journalists' cameras with umbrellas, and bodyslamming democratic legislators who tried to ward them off.

An earlier conciliatory attempt by Ms Lam earlier in the day to assure citizens the government would be "more responsive" to their concerns, was rejected by the crowds.

The government condemned "radical protesters" who had "seriously jeopardised" police and the public.

Few paid attention as tensions rose within the occupied chambers, and the leaderless youngsters debated what to do. Some remained unfailingly polite, leaving money for drinks they had consumed and urging others not to destroy documents.

By 10pm, the police broke their silence via social media, warning they were about to sweep the area with "reasonable force" and appealing to "unrelated protesters to leave the vicinity".

As midnight struck, riot officers reappeared, marching in a tight, intimidating formation, banging their shields. The young protesters fled.

Thousands who had gathered in the courtyard of the building raised their hands in a gesture of surrender and ran through nearby Tamar park. Others fanned out through the streets, maintaining an aggressive stand-off that lasted into the early hours of the morning, and promising defiantly to return.

Protesters inside the building grew nervous, with a consensus building that it was time to leave.

Eyewitnesses said some dissolved in tears, dragging reluctant friends from the chamber, to save them from lengthy jail terms for rioting.

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