Hong Kong protests: Defiant Carrie Lam condemns storming of parliament and vows to take action

Nicola Smith
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks to media over an extradition bill in Hong Kong - REUTERS

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 on Monday night, in scenes of unprecedented chaos.

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

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

Speaking at a dramatic 4am press conference this morning, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, condemned the "extremely violent" storming of parliament and pledged to pursue criminal charges.

Flanked by her security minister, she said the "scene that really saddens a lot of people and shocks a lot of people is the extreme use of violence and vandalism. This is something we should seriously condemn. Nothing is more important than the rule of law in Hong Kong." She said Hong Kong would "pursue any illegal acts" committed by protesters.

A tense calm descended on the city early on Tuesday as police cleared roads near the heart of the financial centre, paving the way for business to return to normal.

Debris including umbrellas, hard hats and water bottles were the few signs left of the mayhem. while the government offices remained closed. 

Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, said: "When I look at those terrible scenes in Hong Kong, my heart goes out to people who do have to fight for their freedoms and who are worried they could lose a very precious way of life. I don't support violence in any circumstances but I understand their worries about changes that are happening in Hong Kong."

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks to media over an extradition bill in Hong Kong Credit: Reuters

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 sudden turn about 9pm when a hardcore group of agitated young men and women 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.

Police officers stand guard at the Legislative Council Building after protesters stormed the building in Hong Kong Credit: Rex

The protesters had paid little heed to their warnings. Throughout the day, several had told journalists on the ground that 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 contested draft extradition bill, currently suspended but not fully withdrawn, would allow alleged criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for the first time for trial. The withdrawal of the law 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.

Anti-extradition bill protesters walk inside a security room after demonstrators stormed the Legislative Council building on the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China in Hong Kong Credit: Reuters

A coalition of protest groups, which has no central leadership and has been fuelled by online chat groups, have 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.

Monday’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 channeled 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, topped two million people.

Monday’s crowd represented several generations from all walks of life. “I wanted to add to the crowd numbers so that the government could hear the dissatisfaction of so many people,” said Gary, 35, a teacher, who declined to give his surname. 

Ming, 50, a business owner, told The Telegraph: “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 fifties, what can we do for these young people? One thing we can do is come out and march."

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

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

A conciliatory attempt by Ms Lam earlier in the day to assure Hong Kong citizens that 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 protestors to leave the vicinity.”

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. Observers had questioned the decision by police to withdraw and allow protesters to flood and vandalise the parliament. 

As midnight struck, riot officers suddenly reappeared , marching in a tight, intimidating formation, banging their shields.The young protesters fled through the exits into clouds of teargas.  Thousands who had gathered in the courtyard of the building raised their hands in gesture of surrender and ran through nearby Tamar park.

Protesters storm the Legislative Council building on the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China in Hong Kong Credit: Reuters

Others fanned out through the streets, maintaining an aggressive standoff that lasted into the early hours of the morning, and promising defiantly to return.

As officers swept the building for any stray occupiers, the Hong Kong hospital authority said it had treated 54 people, including three in a serious condition. In the aftermath of the worst political crisis to hit the Hong Kong government since the 1997 handover, Ms Lam called a 4am press conference at the police headquarters.

The CHRF and pan-democratic legislators, who had appealed for peace throughout the day, accused Ms Lam of fueling the crisis with her arrogant response.

“Lam is the culprit,” they said in a joint late-night emergency statement. “She has rejected to face the society, ignored the demands of the people and pushed youngsters towards desperation.”

9:57PM

US urges all sides in Hong Kong to avoid violence

The US State Department has issued a statement urging caution.

"We urge all sides to refrain from violence," a spokeswoman said.

"Hong Kong's success is predicated on its rule of law and respect for fundamental freedoms, including freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly," she said.

The United States has voiced solidarity with activists who succeeded in blocking - for now - a move by Hong Kong's pro-Beijing authorities to allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland, whose communist system is notorious for meting out harsh justice.

9:19PM

Carrie Lam condemns 'extremely violent' storming of parliament  

Speaking at a dramatic 4am press conference on Tuesday morning, Carrie  Lam, Hong Kong's Chief Executive, condemned the "extremely violent"  storming of parliament. 

Appearing outside the police headquarters flanked by her security minister, she said the "scene that we have seen  that really saddens a lot of people and shocks a lot of people is the  extreme use of violence and vandalism. 

"This is something we should seriously condemn," she said. "Nothing is more  important than the rule of law in Hong Kong."

Ms Lam described Monday's events "heartbreaking and shocking" and said she hoped society would "return to normal as soon as possible," while acknowledging that thousands had marched peacefully in the city before the unrest.

The protesters' demands included the withdrawal of an extradition bill as well as Ms Lam's resignation. Speaking in English and Cantonese, a defiant Ms Lam said Hong Kong would “pursue any  illegal acts” committed by protesters. 

"I hope the community at large will agree with us that with these violent acts that we have seen, it is right for us to condemn it and hope society will return to normal as soon as possible," she told reporters.

The city's chief executive went on to describe the protests as "two completely different scenes: one was a peaceful and rational parade...the other one was a heartbreaking, shocking, and law-breaking scene." 

8:14PM

Jeremy Hunt said his "heart goes out" to protesters in Hong Kong

Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, said his "heart goes out" to protesters in Hong Kong. More than 50 people are reportedly injured.

"When I look at those situations that we've just seen, and those terrible scenes in Hong Kong, my heart goes out to people who do have to fight for their freedoms and who are worried they could lose very, very precious way of life," Mr Hunt told Sky News.

"I don't support violence in any circumstances but I understand their worries about changes that are happening in Hong Kong."

China's foreign ministry delivered a sharply-worded rebuke after Mr Hunt said Britain will remain "unwavering" in its support for Hong Kong.

A spokesman was quoted as saying that Britain needed to "know its place and stop interfering" in what was a "purely internal affair" for China.

Meanwhile according to the South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong hospital authority said it had treated 38 men and 16 women following the protests, three of whom are in a serious condition.

8:04PM

Pictures show extent of damage to parliament building

These pictures show the extent of the damage to Hong Kong's legislative council 

Protesters break the windows of the Legislative Council Credit: Thomas Peter/Reuters
The protesters were in the building for three hours Credit: Tyrone Siu/Reuters
A security room in the Legislative Council  Credit: Tyrone Siu/Reuters

 

7:00PM

Campaigners urge Britain to give more rights to Hong Kong-based UK passport holders 

Campaigners handed the UK government a letter on Monday demanding more rights for the residents of Hong Kong who have British passports.

A small demonstration was held outside Britain's parliament as Hong Kong residents urged lawmakers to give them a right to stay in Britain.

"Bearing in mind that there are so many things happening in Hong Kong, we think that human rights, press freedom, freedom of speech etcetera, are all under threat," Karl Lee, a 32-year-old protester, said. "That's why many of us are thinking of relocating to the United Kingdom."

With many young people looking for routes out of Hong Kong, the campaigners say Britain should change the status of the British National (Overseas) passport, a category created after Britain returned Hong Kong to China.

Though the category allows passport holders to visit the UK for 6 months, they do not come with an automatic right to live or work in the United Kingdom.

The protesters in London chanted "We are not Chinese, we are British," and Mr  Lee said the current system for passport holders was unfair.

"That's why we are urging the British government to do something to either rectify the issue or facilitate some of us who are looking to relocate here," he said.

6:19PM

Riot police retake parliament 

Hong Kong riot police have taken back the city's parliament from anti-government protesters who had stormed the building hours earlier, an AFP reporter inside the complex said.

Special Tactical Squad disperses protesters Credit: Justin Chin /Bloomberg 

Protesters had fled the building by the time riot police reached the sprawling government complex after firing tear gas rounds and baton-charging demonstrators in the streets outside.

In the end, officers were able to walk into the ransacked main chamber without meeting any resistance. Only around two dozen reporters were left inside.

5:44PM

Protesters tie British colonial flag to podium

Some of the protesters tied the British colonial flag to the podium in Hong Kong's legislature. 

5:33PM

Police advancing on parliament building

Police have begun advancing on Hong Kong's legislature building to clear the protesters who broke into it and vandalised offices and the main chamber.

An AP journalist said he could feel tear gas on Monday night as he and other media left the building with protesters.

The crackdown began around midnight local time.

Police earlier announced they would begin clearing the building and warned they would use appropriate force if they encountered resistance.

Hundreds of protesters broke into the building at about 9 p.m. and spray-painted slogans on the walls of the main chamber.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of others marched through the city to demand expanded democracy on the 22nd anniversary of the former British colony's return to China.

5:20PM

Hong Kong police move in to clear the hundreds of protesters

Hong Kong police moved in to clear the hundreds of protesters who stormed the legislature, and fired tear gas at protesters outside parliament.  

Hours earlier, they had streamed into the legislature after shattering windows with metal trolleys and poles and wrenching open metal shutters. The council issued a red alert, ordering them to leave. But the riot police who had previously been pushing them back appeared to have retreated.

Earlier, police had raced toward protesters, beating some with batons and using pepper spray to thin the crowds.

As the day wore on, more people turned out to participate in a planned rally to mark the date the former British colony was given back to China in 1997. The organisers said some 550,000 attended.

Anti-government protesters stormed Hong Kong's parliament building  Credit: VIVEK PRAKASH/AFP/Getty Images

5:17PM

Hunt shows support for protesters

Jeremy Hunt, the British Foreign Secretary, tweeted in support of the demonstrations, saying: "No violence is acceptable but HK people must preserve right to peaceful protest exercised within the law."

5:17PM

'Seeing these young people like this, if I didn’t come out, I couldn’t have that on my conscience'

“I wanted to add to the crowd numbers so that the government could hear the dissatisfaction of so many people,” said Gary, 35, a teacher, who declined to give his surname.

Ming, 50, a business owner, told The Daily Telegraph: “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 fifties, what can we do for these young people? One thing we can do is come out and march."

Pro-democracy activists use the handover anniversary every year to march through Hong Kong calling for greater freedoms, though have failed to win any concessions from Beijing.

Coming after three weeks of ongoing rallies, this year's rally took on even greater significance. 

Hundreds of protesters poured into the building after hours of trying to break through windows Credit: Vivek Prakash/AFP

Marches since June 9 have seen crowds swell to over one million with people demanding Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader, Ms Lam, withdraw a controversial extradition bill.

Rights activists argue that, if passed, it would see suspects face unfair trials in mainland China where the courts are controlled by the ruling Communist Party and authorities use torture to extract forced confessions.

The proposed bill, which has been delayed but not scrapped since protests intensified, adds to growing fears that China is gradually snuffing out the city’s freedoms, which were guaranteed for at least 50 years in a handover agreement between Britain and Beijing.

China has become more willing to openly intervene in politics, barring individuals from running for the city’s legislature, forcing elected lawmakers to step down, and jailing young activists. As fears over human rights have grown, Germany has recently granted asylum to two Hong Kong dissidents.

Riot police had pushed protesters back earlier in the day but later retreated Credit:  Anthony Kwan/ Getty Images 

“The government is doing so much to threaten our way of life,” said Jessica Yeung, 50, a university professor who left a family holiday in York early to come home and join the protests. “We have to stand and safeguard our values.”

Mrs Ho, a manual worker in her fifties, said: “I’ve come out to all the marches. I am not just supporting the students, I am supporting our Hong Kong spirit. They said it was one country two systems, but it’s not like that anymore. As for the glass breaking, we don’t know who they are.”

The latest rallies in Hong Kong represent the biggest popular challenge to Chinese president Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

The extradition issue has re-united Hong Kong’s previously fractured anti-Beijing resistance movement which had been riven with in-fighting and squabbles between different camps.

Police officers use baton to disperse anti-extradition protesters during a clash outside the Legislative Council Complex  Credit: Getty

“It’s a matter of a raw nerve having been touched for both the political groups and parties, as well as for the general public, so people came out,” said Steve Tsang, director of the University of London’s SOAS China Institute.

“It didn’t matter who was asking them,” he said. “They voluntarily and proactively went out to show how much they care about the consequences of allowing those laws to be passed.”

Protest organisers hope “to transform our power from the streets into the political system,” Bonnie Leung, vice-convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, told The Telegraph, looking ahead to elections for the city’s legislature next year.

It’s an opportunity for the resistance camp to win more seats and whittle down the current pro-Beijing majority, she said.

As it stands, 43 of 70 seats are currently held by Beijing supporters in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. “Then the government can no longer ignore our voices as they are doing now,” said Ms Leung.

Hong Kongers have also criticised the UK, urging London to do more to pressure China to uphold its end of the handover agreement, the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

 Anti-extradition protesters push barricades toward police on a street during a stand-off outside the Legislative Council Complex Credit: Getty

“The British suck,” said Alex, a designer, 25, who declined to give his real name. “They abandoned us and only paid us lip service.”

Protesters have been increasingly wary of their identities being revealed over fears of future backlash. Many have used umbrellas or donned face masks as a way to obscure their faces, as well as to defend against tear gas.

On Sunday, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt urged the Hong Kong authorities to respect the “rights and freedoms” ahead of anniversary date, reiterating the UK’s support for the declaration.

“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.”

Two years ago, China said the joint declaration was a historical document that no longer had any practical significance.

Beijing reiterated its stance on Monday, calling on the UK to stop “gesticulating” and “interfering” in its former colony and that Britain’s rights and obligations under the joint declaration had ended.

 Police officers pepper spray during a clash with anti-extradition protesters Credit: Getty

“Britain has no so-called responsibility for Hong Kong,” said Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry. “Hong Kong matters are purely an internal affair for China. No foreign country has a right to interfere.”

“We urge Britain to know its place and stop interfering in any form in Hong Kong matters and do more for its prosperity and stability rather than the opposite,” he added.

Aside from Mr Geng’s comments there was no mention of the protests in Hong Kong on Monday in China, where censors tightly control news and information.

State media instead carried remarks from Mr Xi extolling the virtues of the Communist Party on the 98th anniversary of its founding – coincidentally the same day as the handover anniversary.

Protesters have indicated no plans of backing down – unlike past demonstrations, the latest wave have coalesced through a groundswell from many groups – political parties, labour unions, business groups, schools – rather than one main convenor.

“This is a pretty organic movement; there is not one single organizer like in 2014, where everyone was looking to the student leaders,” Dennis Kwok, a politician who opposes the extradition bill, told the Telegraph. “There are no leaders in this one.”

Additional reporting by Yiyin Zhong