Beijing has described the storming and trashing of Hong Kong’s legislature on Monday by protesters against an extradition bill as a “blatant challenge” and accused foreign countries of helping to foment the unrest.
Protesters used metal poles and street signs to smash their way into the Legislative Council, the city’s de facto parliament, where they sprayed graffiti and unfurled a colonial era flag, before fleeing a few hours later ahead of a police operation to clear the building.
The protests followed mass demonstrations over the past three weeks against a government bill that would allow the extradition of criminal suspects from the territory to China. The protests have plunged one of Asia’s premier financial centres into its worst political crisis since its handover from the UK to China 22 years ago.
“This serious illegal act tramples on the rule of law in Hong Kong, undermines Hong Kong’s social order and undermines the fundamental interests of Hong Kong,” Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said on Tuesday.
“It is a blatant challenge to the ‘one country, two systems’,” it said, referring to the formula under which Beijing allows Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy. It said it backed efforts by Hong Kong authorities to investigate “violent offenders” and “protect the safety of citizens and property”.
The anti-extradition protests have escalated into a major crisis for Hong Kong’s leader, chief executive Carrie Lam, who was appointed by a special committee of mostly pro-Beijing figures in 2017, as well as a serious political challenge for China’s president Xi Jinping.
An estimated 2m took to the streets on June 16, a day after Ms Lam said she would “suspend” the bill. In spite of Monday’s violence, most of the demonstrations have been peaceful.
On Monday, a further 550,000 joined a peaceful march marking the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China, calling for Ms Lam to step down and for the bill to be completely withdrawn.
Beijing on Tuesday also accused unnamed foreign countries of sanctioning what it called violent crimes.
“They not only do not oppose and condemn the act, instead they talk about the so-called right of freedom . . . the ‘right to peaceful protest’ by violent offenders, arguing for violent criminals,” Beijing’s office of the commissioner of the ministry of foreign affairs in Hong Kong said.
It urged these countries to immediately stop “interfering” in Hong Kong and China’s internal affairs “otherwise they will reap what they sow”.
Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and author of City of Protest, a book on the history of dissent in the city, said many had been left “shell-shocked” by the break-in at the Legislative Council. But while the wider community did not support violence or vandalism, he said there would be a degree of sympathy. “It’s not as if the government is off the hook here,” he said. “Even if community sentiment is the protesters have gone too far, community sentiment isn’t saying at the same time that the government handled it all fine and that we’re on the government’s side now.”
Joanne Cheung, 29, who joined protests in June, said that while she would only protest peacefully, the actions on Monday did not diminish her support.
“I can understand why some protesters would try to break into the Legislative Council to try to express their anger and also to try to force the government to do something,” she said.
But Andrew Leung, president of the Legislative Council, criticised the violence. “I believe many Hong Kong people would share the same feeling with me that we are saddened by what happened last night,” he said.
Meanwhile, business groups expressed condemnation. The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, which has criticised the extradition bill, said it supported the right of Hong Kong people to peacefully express their views but did not condone violence and the destruction of property.
US consul general Kurt Tong brushed off China’s accusations of interference on Tuesday. He said he would “absolutely disagree” that Washington had encouraged the vandalism involved in the July 1 protest, emphasising the billions of US investment in the territory.
Chief executive Carrie Lam was “sincere” in her conciliatory remarks on Monday, Mr Tong added. “This is not the first time in history that a fundamentally honourable person has made a serious mistake in governance,” he said.
The Chinese Chamber of Commerce and three other major Hong Kong manufacturing groups voiced support for the government and police following the storming of the legislature on Monday night.
Philip Dykes, chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, said the violence was “so plainly alien” to the peaceful protests. But he said he is now watching for the government’s next steps.
The government “clearly can’t govern the way it’s been doing over the past few years”, he said. “It’s been too aloof and I think it’s recognised that, so the interesting thing to see is what is the government going to do about it. How is it going to engage with these people who are clearly alienated?”