Hong Kong grapples with protest aftermath as China demands criminal probe

Wednesday July 3 2019

Protesters attend the annual pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong on July 1, 2019 on the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China. PHOTO | AFP

Protesters attend the annual pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong on July 1, 2019 on the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China. PHOTO | PHILIP FONG | AFP 

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Hong Kong on Tuesday grappled with the aftermath of unprecedented anti-government protests which saw parliament ransacked, as Beijing called for a criminal probe into the unparalleled challenge to its authority.

The semi-autonomous financial hub has been thrown into crisis by weeks of demonstrations over a bill that would allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland, with the issue becoming a lightning rod for resentment towards Beijing.

On Monday -- the 22nd anniversary of the city's handover to China -- anger spilt over as groups of mostly young, hard-line protesters, breached the Legislative Council.

Pro-police protesters manifest next to the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong on July 3, 2019. PHOTO | HECTOR RETAMAL | AFP

Pro-police protesters manifest next to the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong on July 3, 2019. PHOTO | HECTOR RETAMAL | AFP

They hung the city's colonial-era flag in the debating chamber, scrawled messages such as "Hong Kong is not China" on walls, and defaced the city's seal with spray-paint.

Police charged into the building shortly after midnight to retake control.

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PROTESTS

The events pose an unprecedented challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, and on Tuesday, Beijing wasted no time in asking Hong Kong to investigate the "criminal responsibility of violent offenders" for "serious illegal actions".

It also rebuked Donald Trump for interfering in the city's affairs, after the US president said the protesters were "looking for democracy" but "some governments don't want democracy" -- an apparent swipe at Beijing.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks to the media at the police headquarters in Hong Kong early on July 2, 2019. She condemned the "extremely violent" storming of the city's parliament, after thousands of protesters ransacked the assembly in an unprecedented display of defiance on the anniversary of the territory's handover to China. PHOTO | ANTHONY WALLACE | AFP

Hong Kong has been rocked by massive protests over the past three weeks. The rallies -- including a huge pro-democracy march on Monday -- have been largely peaceful while calling on the city's Beijing-appointed chief executive Carrie Lam to resign.

But they have failed to win concessions.

Lam has refused to permanently shelve the extradition law or step down. By Monday, some hard-line protesters appeared to have reached breaking point, and stormed the legislature.

Lam -- whose approval ratings are at a record low -- condemned "the extreme use of violence", describing the vandalism as "heartbreaking and shocking".

A policeman looks at the damage and debris after protesters stormed the government headquarters hours before in Hong Kong early on July 2, 2019. PHOTO | ANTHONY WALLACE | AFP

A policeman looks at the damage and debris after protesters stormed the government headquarters hours before in Hong Kong early on July 2, 2019. PHOTO | ANTHONY WALLACE | AFP

The legislature was closed Tuesday as police collected evidence from the debris-strewn building, while workers swept surrounding areas littered with shattered glass, broken umbrellas and hard hats.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu, who was stopped from entering his office, said police told him the building was "a crime scene".

AGREEMENTS

Legislative council president Andrew Leung, whose portrait was among those defaced by protesters, said major meetings were now cancelled until October.

"Our security systems, our fire services, our lifts... need to be tested before we can resume any meetings," the pro-Beijing politician said.

People walk past notes left by protesters on the walls of the government headquarters in Hong Kong on July 2, 2019, a day after protesters broke into the building. PHOTO | VIVEK PRAKASH | AFP

People walk past notes left by protesters on the walls of the government headquarters in Hong Kong on July 2, 2019, a day after protesters broke into the building. PHOTO | VIVEK PRAKASH | AFP

Under the terms of the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule, Hong Kong enjoys rights and liberties unseen on the mainland. But protesters accuse Beijing of reneging on that deal with the help of unelected leaders.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned China of "serious consequences" if it breaches that bilateral handover agreement.

Activist Joshua Wong, who was the face of the city's 2014 pro-democracy demonstrations, told reporters the protests were a response to "the tyranny... (and) imperial rule of Beijing and the Hong Kong government".

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen voiced support for pro-democracy demonstrators.

"As President of a country that walked the long road to democracy, I urge the #HongKong government to address the legitimate concerns of the people & their pursuit of freedom & democracy," she tweeted.

Pro-police protesters manifest next to the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong on July 3, 2019. PHOTO | HECTOR RETAMAL | AFP

Pro-police protesters manifest next to the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong on July 3, 2019. PHOTO | HECTOR RETAMAL | AFP

Chinese state media have dismissed the protests as "mob violence".

"A zero-tolerance policy is the only remedy for such destructive behaviour", the Global Times daily wrote in an editorial.

The official Xinhua news agency, in a commentary, said the acts "trampled the rule of law in Hong Kong," and the offenders "must be severely punished" in accordance with the law.

Police fire tear gas at protesters near the government headquarters in Hong Kong early on July 2, 2019. PHOTO | ANTHONY WALLACE | AFP

Police fire tear gas at protesters near the government headquarters in Hong Kong early on July 2, 2019. PHOTO | ANTHONY WALLACE | AFP

DANGEROUS TURN

Analysts said the chaotic scenes showing demonstrators tearing down portraits and spraying graffiti signalled a dangerous turn.

"The gestures were meant to provoke the Chinese authorities", said political analyst Joseph Cheng.

"They are gestures of defiance rather than a genuine political action," he said, warning they would likely "be seized upon by Beijing and by the Carrie Lam administration as justification for a crackdown".

The increasingly hard-line tactics have divided Hong Kongers.

Workers on July 3, 2019 repair windows that were damaged in the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong.

Workers on July 3, 2019 repair windows that were damaged in the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong during a protest. PHOTO | HECTOR RETAMAL | AFP

Brokerage executive Chris Cheung told AFP Monday's protest was "unwise and unnecessary".

"Violence can't change the people's attitude, only reason will," he said.

But clean-up volunteer Blue Wong said she was "angry with the government for pushing the young generation to such a stage.

"I won't criticise or judge the youngsters. Even though their actions are violent, their hearts are gentle", she said.

"They are fighting for a better Hong Kong."

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