By John Ruwitch and Sumeet Chatterjee
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of Hong Kong protesters stormed the legislature on the anniversary of the city’s 1997 return to China on Monday, destroying pictures and daubing walls with graffiti in a direct challenge to China as anger over an extradition bill spiraled out of control.
Some carried road signs, others corrugated iron sheets and pieces of scaffolding upstairs and downstairs as about a thousand gathered around the Legislative Council building in the heart of the former British colony’s financial district.
Some sat at legislators’ desks, checking their phones, while others scrawled “Withdraw anti-extradition” on walls.
The government called for an immediate end to the violence, saying it had stopped all work on extradition bill amendments and that the legislation would automatically lapse in July next year.
There was no immediate response from the protesters, although some appeared to retreat as the evening wore on.
A small group of mostly students wearing hard hats and masks had used a metal trolley, poles and scaffolding to charge again and again at the compound’s reinforced glass doors, which eventually gave.
The council, the mini-parliament, issued a red alert, ordering the protesters to leave immediately.
It did not say what would happen if they didn’t but police did not immediately intervene.
The Legislative Council Secretariat released a statement canceling business for Tuesday. The central government offices said they would close on Tuesday “owing to security consideration”.
Riot police in helmets and carrying batons earlier fired pepper spray as the standoff continued into the sweltering heat of the evening. Some demonstrators removed steel bars that were reinforcing parts of the council building.
Banners hanging over flyovers at the protest site read: “Free Hong Kong.”
The protesters, some with cling film wrapped around their arms to protect their skin in the event of tear gas, once again paralyzed parts of the Asian financial hub as they occupied roads after blocking them off with metal barriers.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam suspended the bill on June 15 after some of the largest and most violent protests in the city in decades but stopped short of protesters’ demands to scrap it.
It was not immediately clear that the announcement it would lapse would ease the tension.
The Beijing-backed leader is now clinging on to her job at a time of an unprecedented backlash against the government that poses the greatest popular challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
“The kind of deafness that I see in the government this time around despite these protests is really worrying. The complete disregard for the will of the people is what alarms me,” said Steve, a British lawyer show has worked in Hong Kong for 30 years.
“If this bill is not completely scrapped, I will have no choice but to leave my home, Hong Kong.”
Opponents of the extradition bill, which would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party, fear it is a threat to Hong Kong’s much-cherished rule of law.
Hong Kong returned to China under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including the freedom to protest and an independent judiciary.
Beijing denies interfering but, for many Hong Kong residents, the extradition bill is the latest step in a relentless march toward mainland control.
China has been angered by criticism from Western capitals, including Washington and London, about the legislation. Beijing said on Monday that Britain had no responsibility for Hong Kong any more and was opposed to its “gesticulating” about the territory.
Tens of thousands marched in temperatures of around 33 degrees Celsius (91.4°F) from Victoria Park in an annual rally. Many clapped as protesters held up a poster of Lam inside a bamboo cage. Organizers said 550,000 turned out. Police said there were 190,000 at their peak.
More than a million people have taken to the streets at times over the past three weeks to vent their anger.
A tired-looking Lam appeared in public for the first time in nearly two weeks, before the storming of the legislature, flanked by her husband and former Hong Kong leader Tung Chee-hwa.
“The incident that happened in recent months has led to controversies and disputes between the public and the government,” she said. “This has made me fully realize that I, as a politician, have to remind myself all the time of the need to grasp public sentiment accurately.”
PROTEST MOVEMENT REINVIGORATED
Beijing’s grip over Hong Kong has intensified markedly since Xi took power and after pro-democracy street protests that gripped the city in 2014 but failed to wrestle concessions from China.
Tensions spiraled on June 12 when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters near the heart of the city, sending plumes of smoke billowing among some of the world’s tallest skyscrapers.
The uproar has reignited a protest movement that had lost steam after the failed 2014 demonstrations that led to the arrests of hundreds.
Activists raised a black bauhinia flag to half-mast outside the Legislative Council building before the rally and turned Hong Kong’s official flag, featuring a white bauhinia flower on a red background, upside down.
The turmoil comes at a delicate time for Beijing, which is grappling with a trade dispute with the United States, a faltering economy and tensions in the South China Sea.
Beyond the public outcry, the extradition bill has spooked some Hong Kong tycoons into starting to move their personal wealth offshore, according to financial advisers familiar with the details.
(Additional reporting by Reuters TV, Alun John, Vimvam Tong, Thomas Peter, David Lague, Jessie Pang, Anne Marie Roantree, Sharon Lam, Donny Kwok, Joyce Zhou, Twinnie Siu and Felix Tam in HONG KONG and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING, Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Nick Macfie)