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Hong Kong leader condemns ‘extremely violent’ protests

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Hong Kong‘s leader on Tuesday condemned “the extreme use of violence” by masked protesters who stormed and ransacked the city’s legislature in an unprecedented challenge to Beijing‘s authority.



The semi-autonomous financial hub has been thrown into crisis by weeks of massive demonstrations over a bill that would allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland.



But on Monday — the 22nd anniversary of the city’s handover to China — anger spilled over as groups of mostly young, hardline protesters, broke into the legislative council.



They hung the city’s colonial-era flag in the debating chamber, scrawled messages such as “Hong Kong is not China” and defaced the city’s emblematic seal with spray-paint.



Police charged into the building shortly after midnight.



The events pose an unparalleled challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who has so far left Lam to handle the protests.



In a pre-dawn press conference, Lam, the city’s Beijing-appointed chief executive, described the scenes of vandalism as “heartbreaking and shocking”.



“This is something we should seriously condemn because nothing is more important than the rule of law in Hong Kong,” she said, with the city’s police chief Stephen Lo by her side.



Lo added: “Protesters’ violent acts have far exceeded the bottom line of peaceful expressions of demands.”



The financial hub has been rocked by massive protests over the past three weeks as anger against the pro-Beijing government has boiled over.



The rallies — including a huge pro-democracy march on Monday — have been largely peaceful while calling for Lam, whose approval ratings are at a record low, to resign.



But they have failed to win many concessions, with Lam resisting calls to permanently shelve the extradition law or step down.



– ‘Tyranny’ –



On Monday, some hardline protesters appeared to have reached breaking point, saying they felt compelled to storm parliament because their concerns were going unheard.



“We have marched, staged sit-ins… but the government has remained unmoved,” Joey, a 26-year-old protester, told AFP as she walked over shattered glass inside the building.



“We have to show the government that we won’t just sit here and do nothing.”



“There are no rioters, just tyranny,” read one banner hoisted above the podium.



The legislature was closed on Tuesday, as police inspected the damage inside the building, while workers waited outside to begin a clean-up.



Pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu was stopped from entering his office as police cordoned off the debris-strewn building with barricades.



“The police said the whole place is a crime scene. So now the whole place is basically taken over by the police,” Chu told reporters outside.



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



– ‘Gentle hearts’ –



On Monday, the United States voiced its support for the protesters, with President Donald Trump saying the demonstrators were “looking for democracy“.



“Unfortunately, some governments don’t want democracy“, he added, in an apparent swipe at Beijing.



Chinese state media dismissed the protests as “mob violence”.



Chinese society is all too aware that a zero-tolerance policy is the only remedy for such destructive behaviour”, the state-run Global Times daily wrote in an editorial.



“Otherwise, and without this policy, it would be similar to opening a Pandora’s Box, upending social disorder,” it warned.



Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed “unwavering” support for “Hong Kong and its freedoms” but urged restraint from protesters.



The increasingly hardline tactics have divided Hong Kongers, with some calling for the protesters to focus on finding common ground with government supporters.



Brokerage executive Chris Cheung told AFP the decision to attack the legislature was “unwise and unnecessary”.



“Violence can’t change the people’s attitude, only reason will,” he said.



Outside the legislature, clean-up volunteer Blue Wong told AFP she was “angry with the government for pushing the young generation to such a stage”.



“I won’t criticise or judge the youngsters for what they did…. Even though their actions are violent, their hearts are gentle”, she said.



“They are fighting for a better Hong Kong.”



Hong Kong police retake parliament from anti-government protesters
Hong Kong (AFP) July 1, 2019 -
Hong Kong police fired tear gas early Tuesday to regain control of the city’s parliament after thousands of protesters occupied and ransacked the assembly in an unprecedented display of defiance on the anniversary of the territory’s handover to China.



US President Donald Trump said the demonstrators were “looking for democracy“, adding that “unfortunately, some governments don’t want democracy” — tough words for Beijing.



The semi-autonomous financial hub has been rocked by three weeks of huge demonstrations sparked by an unpopular bill that would allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland.



But on Monday, that anger reached levels unseen for years.



Masked protesters — mostly young and many wearing yellow hard hats — broke into the legislature after hours of clashes with police.



They ransacked the building, daubing its walls with anti-government graffiti, in an unparalleled challenge to city authorities and Beijing.



Police had warned of an impending crackdown, and just after midnight, officers moved in from several directions, firing tear gas and wielding batons as they charged — and sending plumes of smoke drifting across the city.



At a press conference in the early hours Tuesday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam condemned the “extremely violent” storming of the legislature, which she described as “heartbreaking and shocking”.



Speaking beside Lam, police chief Stephen Lo said: “Protesters’ violent acts have far exceeded the bottom line of peaceful expressions of demands.”



Huge crowds of democracy activists earlier staged a march calling for Lam, the city’s Beijing-appointed chief executive, to step down and for a reverse of what they see as years of sliding freedoms.



But the atmosphere deteriorated as the day wore on, and a hardcore group of protesters breached parliament after hours of siege.



Once inside, they tore down portraits of the city’s leaders, hoisted a British colonial-era flag in the main chamber and sprayed the city crest with black paint.



“There are no violent protesters, just tyranny,” read one banner, hoisted above the podium.



Hong Kong is not China,” read another.



– ‘We have no choice’ –



Many protesters said they felt compelled to take action because the city’s leaders had ignored public sentiment.



“We have marched, staged sit-ins… but the government has remained unmoved,” Joey, a 26-year-old protester, told AFP as she walked over shattered glass inside the building.



“We have to show the government that we won’t just sit here and do nothing.”



The legislature will be closed on Tuesday.



The past three weeks of rallies are the sharpest expression of fears over Chinese influence on the territory in decades.



Protesters accuse Beijing of stifling the city’s freedoms and culture with the help of unelected leaders.



But the increasingly hardline tactics from some protesters have alienated some, with a large counter-rally in support of the police taking place on Sunday.



Although Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, it is still administered separately under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems”.



The city enjoys rights and liberties unseen on the autocratic mainland, but many residents fear Beijing is already reneging on that deal.



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 of parts of the city centre in 2014 — but have failed to win any concessions from Beijing.



The spark for the current wave of protests was an attempt by Lam to pass the Beijing-backed extradition law, which she has now postponed following the public backlash.



But she has resisted calls to permanently shelve the law or step down.



– Champagne toasts & flags –



Lam — who has record low approval ratings — attended a flag-raising ceremony early Monday, marking the moment the city returned to Chinese rule 22 years ago.



Her speech stuck to the conciliatory tone she has used in recent weeks, saying she recognised conflict had broken out.



“It has made me fully understand that as a politician, I need to be aware and accurately grasp the feelings of the people,” she said.



Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said his country’s support for Hong Kong and “its freedoms is unwavering” and urged restraint from protesters in comments echoed by the European Union.



A spokeswoman from the US State Department earlier urged “all sides to refrain from violence.”



But activists have vowed to keep up their civil disobedience campaign.



“Whatever happens, we won’t lose heart,” Jason Chan, a 22-year-old accountant, added.



“Resistance is not a matter of a day or a week, it is long term.”



Hong Kong: a timeline of mounting protests
Hong Kong (AFP) July 1, 2019 -
Protesters ransacked Hong Kong‘s parliament Monday, marking the latest in a string of pro-democracy fight-backs that have rocked the semi-autonomous city since its handover to China.



The former British colony was handed back to China on July 1, 1997 but benefits from a “One Country, Two Systems” policy that allows it to retain certain key liberties, such as freedom of speech and an independent judiciary, until 2047.



After unprecedented street protests in 2014, demands for change were reignited in February this year over a bill that would have allowed extraditions to China.



Here is an overview of recent demonstrations that have hit Hong Kong:



– 2003: National security law –



About half a million people marched against an attempt to introduce a national security law that critics feared would curtail free speech.



It was the first mass demonstration movement since the handover.



The bill was eventually shelved.



– 2012: Education protests –



Tens of thousands of mainly young demonstrators, many of them school children, surrounded the government complex for 10 days to protest an order for schools to teach “Moral and National Education” classes.



The curriculum praised China‘s communist and nationalist history while criticising republicanism and democracy movements.



It was eventually abandoned.



Some of the protest leaders, such as then 15-year-old Joshua Wong, went on to become leading democracy advocates.



– 2014: Umbrella Movement –



For two months in late 2014, tens of thousands of protesters paralysed parts of the city with mass student-led demonstrations and sit-ins to demand reforms including the right to elect the city’s leader.



There were clashes as police used pepper spray and tear gas against protesters, who used umbrellas to protect themselves, leading to the name Umbrella Movement.



Police dismantled the main pro-democracy site in December.



The movement failed to win any concessions and many of its leaders were imprisoned.



– 2019: Extradition anger –



In February Hong Kong‘s government announced plans for a bill that would allow, for the first time, extraditions to mainland China.



There were fears the law would tighten Beijing‘s grip on civil society and allow it to pursue its political enemies in Hong Kong.



Tens of thousands of people marched against it on April 28 in one of the biggest demonstrations since the Umbrella Movement.



Hong Kong‘s government made concessions on May 30, saying the extradition law would only apply to cases involving a potential jail term of at least seven years.



On June 9, more than one million people, according to organisers, took to the streets in the biggest demonstration since the return to Chinese rule.



The police, who made 19 arrests, put the turnout at 240,000.



– More protests, bill suspended –



On June 12, a second reading of the bill was delayed after huge crowds rallied, blocking major roads and attempting to storm parliament.



Police used tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds in the worst clashes since the 1997 handover, leaving nearly 80 people injured.



On June 15, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced the suspension of the bill.



But there was a fresh demonstration the following day calling for its full withdrawal.



Organisers said two million people took part. Police put the figure at 338,000.



– Parliament ransacked –



Thousands of people took to the streets again for the annual July 1 march to mark Hong Kong‘s return to China, calling for greater democratic freedoms.



Late in the evening hundreds of young, masked protesters broke into parliament after clashes with police and ransacked the building.



Once inside they daubed its walls with anti-government graffiti, tore down portraits of the city’s leaders, hoisted a British colonial-era flag in the main chamber and sprayed the city crest with black paint.



Police fired tear gas and baton-charged protesters, retaking control of the building hours later.

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