HONG KONG - Protesters and riot police returned to the streets of Hong Kong early Monday to mark the 22nd anniversary of the city’s reunification with China.
Thousands encircled the city’s government complex in the afternoon as a small group attempted to break into the legislature, while police waited inside and fired pepper spray through the gates.
Protesters used umbrellas, goggles, masks and plastic wrap on their limbs to shield their identities from police and to protect themselves from police pepper spray as they attempted to ram the legislature’s door open and break windows near the entrance.
Elsewhere in the city a mass march began at 2:30 p.m. taking protesters from Victoria Park to an area near the government headquarters.
While the protests coincided with the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover, they were triggered by a controversial legislative bill that would allow for criminal extradition to China.
The bill has ignited mass protests for most of the month of June, continuing after Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said she would suspend the bill and apologized. It is set to expire next year with the legislative session.
On Monday, Lam said at a speech she had learned to be more “responsive to the aspirations, sentiments and opinions of the community.”
“The first and most basic step to take is to change the government’s style of governance to make it more open and accommodating,” Lam said. “We also need to reform the way we listen to public views.”
Lam, however, has failed to withdraw the bill permanently or meet other protest demands including an inquiry into police tactics at a violent demonstration on June 12.
She is now facing her lowest popularity ranking since taking office in 2017, according to a survey by the University of Hong Kong.
Protester Leo Wong said many residents mistrust the government, which has promised to cancel unpopular initiatives in the past only for them to change their mind later.
“I understand that people may be saying suspension is the same as withdrawal … but why the protesters are still angry about this is people were tricked by the government for so many times over so many years,” Wong told VOA.
He and many other protesters also spoke of their fears that Hong Kong was losing its autonomy to China, promised until 2047. Citizens are currently protected by the Basic Law, a set of civil and political rights considered Hong Kong’s mini constitution, but they fear this may be eroded.
“There is an actual deadline of basic law until 2047, but we aren’t sure they will honor that deadline. Even though we are having one country, two systems now. … They try to erode our freedom and encroach into Hong Kong,” Wong said.
Earlier Monday, police fired pepper spray and used batons to keep thousands of protesters from charging an early morning flag raising ceremony that marks every anniversary of the city’s handover from the United Kingdom in 1997.
A government spokesperson said 25 protesters and police had been injured as of 11 a.m. Monday.
Protesters also took down the flag of China and replaced it with a black version of Hong Kong’s flag, which features the white Bauhinia flower in the center.
The flag-raising ceremony draws a small number of protesters every year, but Monday’s rally was far greater than expected.
The extradition debate has seen the government unwittingly reignite Hong Kong’s protest movement, and a desire for the direct election of its leader, five years after 2014’s so-called Umbrella Movement democracy protests came to an end.