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Hong Kong Protesters Storm Legislative Council On Anniversary Of Handover To China

Protesters flooded into Hong Kong's parliament chamber after breaking into the government's headquarters on Monday — the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China.
Anthony Wallace
AFP/Getty Images
Protesters flooded into Hong Kong's parliament chamber after breaking into the government's headquarters on Monday — the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China.

Updated at 1 p.m. ET

Protesters charged Hong Kong's Legislative Council building Monday, shattering glass doors and tearing down a metal wall that is part of its facade. After initially stopping short of entering the facility, hundreds of protesters flooded into the lawmakers' chamber.

After breaching the building around 9 p.m. local time, the protesters spray-painted graffiti on the walls and ransacked cabinets. Images from the scene show that they also smashed touchscreen panels and defaced official portraits with rocks and paint.

"Tonight, the streets are boiling over with anger" both at Hong Kong's government and the central leadership in Beijing, NPR's Julie McCarthy reports.

The situation at the Legislative Council building was eventually defused after protesters heeded calls to leave the building — only after the Hong Kong Police Force threatened to move against them and clear the building. The police promised to "use appropriate level of force in case their actions are met with obstruction or resistance."

The chaos brought the dispute between protesters and the government to a new height. But by abandoning the building, protesters also avoided what could have been an even more dangerous scene. Demonstrators who remained outside the legislative building had said they wouldn't move for the police, hoping to protect their allies inside, according to the South China Morning Post.

Monday's action was fueled by outrage at Beijing's attempts to put a new extradition law in place. It also coincided with the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese control.

Thousands of protesters, nearly all of them wearing black clothes, hit the streets for the latest in a string of huge protests. Many marched peacefully or gathered in public parks. Many demonstrators wore yellow hard hats and face masks — protections against possible reprisals.

Some of those protesters targeted the building in Hong Kong's main government complex, overturning barriers and trying to ram their way through glass doors — which shattered and splintered but remained largely intact. Protesters then began attacking the dozens of tall, thin metal bars that make up a fence on the building's exterior wall.

Protesters dismantled part of the metal facade at the government's headquarters in Hong Kong on Monday.
Vivek Prakash / AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
Protesters dismantled part of the metal facade at the government's headquarters in Hong Kong on Monday.

Riot police stood just inside the building, holding weapons and promising to arrest anyone who entered, the Morning Post reports. They deployed pepper spray, according to witnesses. But those officers later retreated after protesters finally broke through a metal shutter that had blocked their access.

The assault on the building prompted the Legislative Council's leadership to issue a "red" warning, ordering anyone in the government complex to withdraw immediately. Even before protesters arrived, the complex was largely empty as Hong Kong observes a holiday to mark the handover anniversary.

A police spokesperson issued a statement saying that some of the protesters who stormed the building also "scattered unknown powder at police officers at scene, causing some of them to feel unwell."

The powder was deemed slightly toxic, the spokesperson said, adding that two officers who reported feeling ill after coming in contact with it recovered after water was poured over their skin.

Monday's demonstrations effectively drowned out a celebration marking the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. That event centered on a flag-raising ceremony — but the civic unrest forced officials to take the rare step of moving most of the celebration indoors, where leaders and VIPs watched as the flag was raised on TV, as the Morning Post reports.

In an earlier clash, police had redirected protesters who tried to march toward the celebration venue, according to The Associated Press.

Weeks of massive protests had already forced Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to apologize and suspend the extradition bill, which would allow Hong Kong people accused of certain crimes to be tried in mainland Chinese courts. But activists say that's not enough. Lacking faith in Beijing-backed Lam, they renewed calls for direct democracy in Hong Kong.

Pro-democracy activists and lawmakers issued a statement on Monday in which they listed their demands. They range from the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill to a call for Lam to resign.

Published by the organization the Civil Human Rights Front, the list also includes three demands related to the protests themselves. The activists are seeking an inquiry into the police use of force during the demonstrations, as well as a retraction by officials who have called the protests "riots." And they want all protesters who were arrested to be released.

As Lam spoke on Monday, she repeated her admission that she had not handled the legislation well. She devoted nearly all of her speech to discussing ways in which she would try to improve, saying her government wants to restore public confidence.

"After this incident, 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," Lam said. "The first and most basic step to take is to change the Government's style of governance to make it more open and accommodating."

The extradition controversy has also fed concerns among Hong Kongers that their civil liberties are being eroded to the same conditions that exist in mainland China.

"China has no freedom. And even Hong Kong now has no freedom," a 72-year-old protest supporter named Mrs. Luo told NPR's McCarthy. "They have lengthened their arms to Hong Kong."

Another protester, 17-year-old Megan Lee, said she had not previously been politically minded — though the dispute over the extradition bill has changed that. "

There's more anger that builds up inside of me around these issues," Lee told Adrian Ma of member station WBUR. "And if I have a chance to express it, I feel like now is a chance to take that." Ma reports that the young protester "says she wants to speak up now, because she's not sure she'll have the right to in the future."

As night fell Monday, thousands of protesters kept marching in Hong Kong, holding their cellphones in the air and using the phone screens to light up the streets.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.