Exclusive: U.S. delays diplomats’ return to China amid concerns over coronavirus testing, quarantine

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has postponed flights for dozens of diplomats who had planned to return to China later this month, after failing to reach agreement with Beijing over issues including COVID-19 testing and quarantine.

Five months after the coronavirus epidemic forced the evacuation of some 1,300 U.S. diplomats and family members from China, Washington and Beijing remain locked in negotiations over conditions for their return, according to more than a dozen internal State Department emails seen by Reuters and people familiar with the matter.

The impasse comes as the pandemic intensifies in many parts of the world, including the United States, with the global tally this week topping 10 million cases and half a million deaths.

It also comes as relations between the world’s two largest economies have sunk to their lowest in decades over issues including China’s handling of the pandemic, bilateral trade and a new security law for Hong Kong.

In a previously unreported June 30 email, Terry Branstad, the U.S. ambassador to China, told embassy staff that two charter flights for diplomats returning to Shanghai and Tianjin planned for July 8 and July 10 respectively had been scrapped and would be rescheduled.

“Protecting the health and safety of our community remains our guiding principle and our top priority in this unprecedented situation,” Branstad wrote. “This means that flight plans will not be confirmed until we have reached an agreement that meets these goals.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to questions about the flight cancellations.

In an emailed response to Reuters questions, the State Department did not specifically discuss negotiations with Beijing, but said: “Mission China and the Department have engaged with Chinese authorities at both the Central Government and the local level to receive assurances of the safe and orderly return of our employees and family.”

A spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said there had been close communication regarding the return of U.S. diplomats to China.

“The virus is still spreading overseas and China continues to be under a fair amount of pressure to prevent the import of cases from overseas,” the spokesperson said in fax response to Reuters’ questions.

“The epidemic control measures for the diplomatic corps in China are applied equally across the board. China strives to preserve its hard-won achievement in countering the virus together with the diplomatic corps, and to provide good conditions and a good living environment for everyone to work and live in China.”

‘SIGNIFICANT LOGISTICAL HURDLES’

People familiar with the matter say Washington and Beijing have not been able to overcome the “significant logistical hurdles”, including the lack of an agreement on Chinese testing and quarantine procedures for diplomats and families that were cited in a May 28 State Department email to China staff.

Diplomats say agreeing to be tested contravenes the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. While an internal State Department guideline dated June 17 says it has approved a plan that includes testing under Chinese procedures upon arrival, sources familiar with the matter say the agency does not want to waive the diplomatic inviolability of staff and is still negotiating with Chinese authorities on the issue.

Several diplomats said they were concerned about the potential for Chinese authorities to take DNA samples and the possibility of parents being separated from their children if some family members tested positive.

“This essentially puts us at the mercy of the Chinese government, with whom tensions have run extremely high,” a U.S. diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Reuters while preparing to return to work in China.

“We are in a situation where officers are being forced to decide between being separated from their families or bringing them into a potentially dangerous situation,” the diplomat said.

The experiences of diplomats taking the first and so far only flight back to China, to Tianjin in late May, had concerned some others planning to return, several diplomatic sources said.

Around 60 passengers of ‘Flight One’ were met by more than 150 Chinese officials in HAZMAT suits who directed them for COVID-19 testing, according to a newsletter for China Mission staff, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.

Swabs were taken by U.S. medical officials, with the tests conducted by Chinese labs.

Diplomats were questioned about their activities prior to the 18-hour journey in a cargo plane from Washington.

“Have you been to any parties? Have you eaten in a restaurant? Do you feel good?” Chinese officials asked before the American diplomats were ushered into a VIP lounge to wait some 10 hours for their test results before they could leave.

Uncertainty about returning has been magnified by regulations that cap the amount of time the State Department can cover the expenses of diplomats evacuated from their posts.

“A lot of people don’t feel like going back, but after 180 days, you’re out of options,” said another foreign service officer familiar with the matter. “Basically your choice is to curtail your job and choose a different assignment.”

A State Department spokeswoman acknowledged that 180 days was the limit for evacuees to receive allowances, and said the agency continued to “assess options on how best to protect and support employees and family members in China and across the globe.”

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington and Tony Munroe in Beijing; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Alex Richardson)

Hong Kong police arrest more than 300 in first protest under new security law

By Scott Murdoch and Yanni Chow

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police fired water cannon and tear gas and arrested more than 300 people on Wednesday as protesters took to the streets in defiance of sweeping security legislation introduced by China that critics say is aimed at snuffing out dissent.

Beijing unveiled the details of the much-anticipated law late on Tuesday after weeks of uncertainty, pushing China’s freest city and one of the world’s most glittering financial hubs on to a more authoritarian path.

As thousands of protesters gathered downtown for an annual rally marking the anniversary of the former British colony’s handover to China in 1997, riot police used pepper spray and fired pellets as they made arrests after crowds spilled into the streets chanting “resist till the end” and “Hong Kong independence”.

“I’m scared of going to jail but for justice I have to come out today, I have to stand up,” said one 35-year-old man who gave his name as Seth.

Police said they had made more than 300 arrests for illegal assembly and other offences, with nine involving suspected violations of the new law.

The law punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in prison, will see mainland security agencies in Hong Kong for the first time and allow for extradition to the mainland for trial.

China’s parliament adopted the law in response to protests last year triggered by fears that Beijing was stifling the city’s freedoms, guaranteed by a “one country, two systems” formula agreed when it returned to Chinese rule.

Police cited the law for in confronting protesters.

“You are displaying flags or banners/chanting slogans/or conducting yourselves with an intent such as secession or subversion, which may constitute offences under the … national security law,” police said in a message displayed on a purple banner.

Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the legislation is aimed at a few “troublemakers” and will not affect rights and freedoms, nor investor interests.

But critics fear it is aimed ending the pro-democracy opposition and will crush the freedoms that are seen as key to Hong Kong’s success as a financial center.

The United States and its Asian and Western allies have criticized the legislation. Britain said it would stand by its word and offer all those in Hong Kong with British National Overseas status a “bespoke” immigration route. Britain and Canada also updated their travel advice for Hong Kong, saying there was an increased risk of detention.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described Wednesday’s protests as heartbreaking and reprimanded HSBC and other banks for supporting the new law, saying the rights of Hong Kong should not be sacrificed for bankers’ bonuses.

Police fired water cannons to try to disperse the protesters. A game of cat-and-mouse reminiscent of last year’s often violent demonstrations followed, with protesters blocking roads before running away from riot police charging with batons, only to re-emerge elsewhere.

Police posted pictures on Twitter of an officer with a bleeding arm saying he was stabbed by “rioters holding sharp objects.” The suspects fled while bystanders offered no help, police said.

On July 1 last year, hundreds of protesters stormed and vandalized the city’s legislature to protest against a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.

Those protests evolved into anti-China demonstrations and calls for democracy, paralyzing parts of the city and paving the way for Beijing’s new law.

‘BIRTHDAY GIFT’

In Beijing, Zhang Xiaoming, executive deputy director of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told reporters suspects arrested by a new Beijing-run security office could be tried on the mainland.

He said the new office abided by Chinese law and that Hong Kong’s legal system could not be expected to implement the laws of the mainland. Article 55 of the law states that Beijing’s security office in Hong Kong could exercise jurisdiction over “complex” or “serious” cases.

“The law is a birthday gift to (Hong Kong) and will show its precious value in the future,” Zhang said, adding the law would not be applied retroactively.

Speaking at a flag-raising ceremony to mark the handover, the city’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, said the law was the most important development since 1997.

“It is also an inevitable and prompt decision to restore stability,” Lam said at the harbor-front venue where the last colonial governor, Chris Patten, a staunch critic of the security law, tearfully handed back Hong Kong to China.

Some pro-Beijing officials and political commentators say the law is aimed at sealing Hong Kong’s “second return” to the motherland after the first failed to bring residents to heel.

Luo Huining, the head of Beijing’s top representative office in Hong Kong, said at the ceremony the law was a “common aspiration” of Hong Kong citizens.

Some pro-democracy activists gave up membership of their groups just before the law came into force into force at 11 p.m. (1500 GMT) on Tuesday, though they called for the campaign to carry on from abroad.

“I saw this morning there are celebrations for Hong Kong’s handover, but to me it is a funeral, a funeral for ‘one country two systems’,” said pro-democracy lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki.

(Reporting by Yanni Chow, Twinnie Siu, Pak Yiu, Scott Murdoch, Joyce Zhou, Clare Jim, Jessie Pang, Tyrone Siu and James Pomfret in Hong Kong, Yew Lun Tian in Beijing, William James and Guy Faulconbridge in London and Denny Thomas in Toronto; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Marius Zaharia; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

China passes national security law in turning point for Hong Kong

By Clare Jim and Yew Lun Tian

HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s parliament passed national security legislation for Hong Kong on Tuesday, setting the stage for the most radical changes to the former British colony’s way of life since it returned to Chinese rule 23 years ago.

Details of the law – which comes in response to last year’s often-violent pro-democracy protests in the city and aims to tackle subversion, terrorism, separatism and collusion with foreign forces – were yet to be released.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam nevertheless welcomed the law’s passage and said it would come into effect later on Tuesday, giving the city’s 7.5 million people little time to digest what is expected to be highly complex legislation.

Amid fears the law will crush the global financial hub’s freedoms, and reports that the heaviest penalty under it would be life imprisonment, pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong’s Demosisto group said it would dissolve.

“It marks the end of Hong Kong that the world knew before,” Wong said on Twitter.

The legislation pushes Beijing further along a collision course with the United States, Britain and other Western governments, which have said it erodes the high degree of autonomy the city was granted at its July 1, 1997, handover.

The United States, already in dispute with China over trade, the South China Sea and the coronavirus, began eliminating Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law on Monday, halting defense exports and restricting technology access.

China said it would retaliate.

Lam, in a video message to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, urged the international community to “respect our country’s right to safeguard national security”.

She said the law would not undermine the city’s autonomy or its independent judiciary.

Authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have repeatedly said the legislation is aimed at a few “troublemakers” and will not affect rights and freedoms, nor investor interests.

The editor-in-chief of the Global Times, a tabloid published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, said on Twitter the heaviest penalty under the law was life imprisonment.

As the law was passed in Beijing, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong held a drill which included exercises to stop suspicious vessels and arrest fugitives, according to the Weibo social media account of state-run CCTV’s military channel.

‘OVERPOWERING’

The legislation may get an early test with activists and pro-democracy politicians saying they would defy a police ban, amid coronavirus restrictions, on a rally on the anniversary of the July 1 handover.

At last year’s demonstration, which came amid a series of pro-democracy protests, a crowd stormed and vandalized the city’s legislature.

“We will never accept the passing of the law, even though it is so overpowering,” said Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai.

It is unclear if attending the unauthorized rally would constitute a national security crime.

A majority in Hong Kong opposes the legislation, a poll conducted for Reuters this month showed, but support for the protests has fallen to only a slim majority.

Police dispersed a handful of activists protesting against the law at a shopping mall.

Dozens of supporters of Beijing popped champagne corks and waved Chinese flags in celebration in front of government headquarters.

“I’m very happy,” said one elderly man, surnamed Lee.

“This will leave anti-China spies and people who brought chaos to Hong Kong with nowhere to go.”

This month, China’s official Xinhua news agency unveiled some of the law’s provisions, including that it would supersede existing Hong Kong legislation and that interpretation powers belong to China’s parliament top committee.

Beijing is expected to set up a national security office in Hong Kong for the first time and could also exercise jurisdiction on certain cases.

Judges for security cases are expected to be appointed by the city’s chief executive. Senior judges now allocate rosters up through Hong Kong’s independent judicial system.

It is not known which specific activities are to be made illegal, how precisely they are defined or what punishment they carry.

Britain, the European Union, Japan, Taiwan and others have also criticized the legislation.

China has hit back at the outcry, denouncing “interference” in its internal affairs.

(Additional reporting by Yanni Chow, Carol Mang, Joyce Zhou, Tyrone Siu, Jessie Pang and James Pomfret in Hong Kong; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

U.S. imposes new rules on exports to China to keep them from its military

By Karen Freifeld

(Reuters) – The United States said on Monday it will impose new restrictions on exports to China to keep semiconductor production equipment and other technology away from Beijing’s military.

The new rules will require licenses for U.S. companies to sell certain items to companies in China that support the military, even if the products are for civilian use. They also do away with a civilian exception that allows certain U.S. technology to be exported without a license, if the use is not connected to the military.

The rules, which were posted for public inspection and will be published in the Federal Register on Tuesday, could hurt the semiconductor industry and sales of civil aviation equipment to China, if the U.S. presumes they are for military applications.

The changes, which include requiring licenses for more items, also expand the rules for Russia and Venezuela, but the biggest impact will be on trade with China.

“It is important to consider the ramifications of doing business with countries that have histories of diverting goods purchased from U.S. companies for military applications,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said in a statement.

Washington trade lawyer Kevin Wolf said the rule changes for China are in response to its policy of military-civil fusion: finding military applications for civilian items.

He said the regulatory definitions of military use and user are broad and go beyond purchases by entities such as the People’s Liberation Army.

For example, Wolf said, if a car company in China repairs a military vehicle, that car company may now be a military end user, even if the item being exported is for another part of the business.

“A military end user is not limited to military organizations,” Wolf said. “A military end user is also a civilian company whose actions are intended to support the operation of a military item.”

Another rule change involves eliminating civilian license exceptions for Chinese importers and Chinese nationals for certain integrated circuits. Other telecommunications equipment, radar and high-end computers will be caught as well.

The administration also posted a third proposed rule change that would force foreign companies shipping certain American goods to China to seek approval not only from their own governments but from the United States as well.

The actions come as relations between the United States and China have deteriorated amid the new coronavirus outbreak.

(Reporting by Karen Freifeld; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)

Chinese capital battles jump in virus cases as infections ease elsewhere

BEIJING (Reuters) – The number of people who have contracted the coronavirus in the Chinese capital has jumped sharply, including more than 30 in an outbreak at a major hospital, while many other parts of the country are reporting fewer or no new infections.

Officials on Friday reported one new case in Beijing as of Feb. 20, bringing the total in the city to 396, with four dead.

Twenty-three cases were recorded the previous day.

The new cases largely stemmed from a major hospital about 6 k, (3.7 miles) west of Tiananmen Square, and come as China’s leaders decide whether to postpone their annual gathering of parliament, the year’s most important political event, originally set for early March.

Eight health workers, nine care workers and cleaners, and 19 patients and their family members were among the 36 cases confirmed at Fuxing Hospital thus far, Pang Xinghuo, vice head of Beijing’s disease control centre, told reporters on Thursday.

The hospital only had nine cases as of Feb. 3.

“I feel deeply guilty and distressed by the cluster case incident at Fuxing Hospital,” Li Dongxia, the hospital’s director, told the same briefing.

The infections also caught the attention of the Global Times, a tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, which ran a story under the headline: “Whopping rise in infection at Beijing hospital puts capital on alert.”

The city’s total cases now rank 13th among provincial-level jurisdictions.

To control the spread of the virus, Beijing and other cities have ordered measures including reduced opening hours at shopping malls, temperature checks in public spaces, and disinfection at residential compounds.

Beijing also requires that people arriving from elsewhere in China quarantine at home for 14 days. Migrant workers are steadily returning to the city of more than 20 million after a long Lunar New Year break, which was extended to give authorities more time to try to contain the virus.

“So disappointed! I was brought up in the district and thought it’s the safest bastion because it’s the heart of the country,” one person wrote on the Twitter-like Weibo.

Nationwide, more than 75,400 people have been confirmed infected with the coronavirus and 2,236 have died, mostly in central Hubei province and its capital of Wuhan where the virus emerged in a wildlife market in December.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo and Lusha Zhang; Additional reporting by Yan Zhang, Yawen Chen and Cheng Leng in Beijing; Editing by Tony Munroe and Kim Coghill)

Hong Kong protesters disrupt train services, cause commuter chaos

Anti-extradition bill demonstrators block a Mass Transit Railway (MTR) train in Hong Kong, China July 30, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Vimvam Tong and Felix Tam

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of Hong Kong protesters blocked train services during the morning rush hour on Tuesday, causing commuter chaos in the latest anti-government campaign to roil the former British colony.

What started three months ago as rallies against an extradition bill that would have allowed people in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for trial, has evolved into a wider backlash against the city’s government and its political masters in Beijing.

Protests have occurred almost daily, sometimes with little notice, disrupting business, piling pressure on the city’s beleaguered government and stretching its police force, which some have accused of using excessive force.

Activists blocked train doors, playing havoc with services and forcing hundreds of people to stream out of railway stations in search of alternative transport.

“We don’t know how long we are going to stay here, we don’t have a leader, as you can see this is a mass movement now,” said Sharon, a 21-year-old masked protester who declined to give her full name.

“It’s not our intention to inconvenience people, but we have to make the authorities understand why we protest. We will continue with this as long as needed.”

Others chanted, “Liberate Hong Kong,” and “Revolution of our time”.

By mid-morning, commuters were crammed into stations across the city, waiting to board trains that were badly delayed, with no service on some lines.

Rail operator MTR Corp urged people to seek other transport.

Transport Secretary Frank Chan called on protesters to stop targeting a rail network that provides transport to five million people a day, public broadcaster RTHK reported.

Hong Kong, which returned to China in 1997, is embroiled in its worst political crisis for decades after two months of increasingly violent protests that have posed one of the gravest populist challenges to Communist Party rulers in Beijing.

‘INCONVENIENT AND ANNOYING’

China on Monday reiterated its support for Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, and its police and urged Hong Kong people to oppose violence.

Lam’s popularity has dropped to a record low, according to a survey by the independent Public Opinion Research Institute released on Tuesday.

The survey, conducted between July 17 and July 19, showed Lam scored a rating of 30.1, down from 33.4 at the beginning of the month. Her approval rate stands at 21%, while her disapproval rate is 70%.

Over the last few years, many people in Hong Kong have become concerned about the whittling away of the city’s freedoms, guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” formula established when it returned to China in 1997.

China denies interfering and has warned that the protests are an “undisguised challenge” to the formula under which the city is ruled, and risked damaging its economy.

The mass transit protest follows a demonstration at the Chinese-ruled city’s international airport on Friday and violent protests at the weekend when activists clashed with police who fired rubber bullets, tear gas and sponge grenades – a crowd-control weapon.

Some scuffles broke out between commuters and protesters, who gradually began to disperse, while more police were deployed in stations, where they stopped protesters to search their bags.

Commuters grew increasingly frustrated over the disruption, and shops, including bakeries and convenience stores, had also begun to close.

“It’s so inconvenient and annoying, really. I am in a hurry to work, to make a living. Will you give away your salary to me?” said a 64-year-old man surnamed Liu.

Others were more supportive, refusing to blame the protesters.

“This non-cooperation movement is caused by Carrie Lam. She doesn’t cooperate with the people of Hong Kong or respond to their demands,” Jason Lo, 31, told Reuters as he waited for a train.

(Reporting by Sumeet Chatterjee, Vimvam Tong and Felix Tam; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Farah Master; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel)

Taiwan president in U.S. after warning of threat from ‘overseas forces’

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen arrives at the hotel where she is supposed to stay during her visit in the Manhattan borough of New York, New York, U.S., July 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Michelle Nichols and Carlo Allegri

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen arrived in the United States on Thursday on a trip that has angered Beijing, warning that democracy must be defended and that the island faced threats from “overseas forces,” in a veiled reference to China.

China, which claims self-ruled and democratic Taiwan as its own and views it as a wayward province, had called on the United States not to allow Tsai to transit there on her overseas tour.

Tsai is spending four nights in the United States – two on the first leg and two on the way back from a visit to four Caribbean allies. She began her trip in New York and is expected to stop in Denver on her way back.

Shortly before Tsai was due to arrive at her Manhattan hotel, a Reuters photographer witnessed a brawl at the hotel’s entrance between dozens of pro-China and pro-Taiwan protesters, which was eventually broken up by police.

The New York Police Department was not immediately able to comment on whether there had been any arrests.

Tsai was last in the United States in March, but her stops this time will be unusually long, as normally she spends just a night at a time in transit.

The U.S. State Department has said there had been no change in the U.S. “one-China” policy, under which Washington officially recognizes Beijing and not Taipei, while assisting Taiwan.

However, analysts said the extended stopovers served to emphasize the Trump administration’s support for Tsai at a time when she has been coming under increasing pressure from Beijing, a major U.S. security rival with which Washington has been engaged in a year-long trade war.

Speaking before departure at Taipei’s main international airport at Taoyuan, Tsai said she would share the values of freedom and transparency with Taiwan’s allies, and was looking forward to finding more international space for Taiwan.

“Our democracy has not come easily and is now facing threats and infiltration from overseas forces,” Tsai said, without being specific.

“These challenges are also common challenges faced by democracies all over the world,” she said. “We will work with countries with similar ideas to ensure the stability of the democratic system.”

CARIBBEAN STOPS

Taiwan has been trying to shore up its diplomatic alliances amid pressure from China. Taipei now counts only 17 countries as diplomatic allies, almost all small Central American, Caribbean or Pacific nations.

Tsai will be visiting St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, and Haiti on her overseas tour.

In New York, Tsai will meet with members of the Taiwanese community and U.N. ambassadors of allied countries.

The State Department described Tsai’s visit as “private and unofficial” and said she would be greeted in New York by James Moriarty, chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei. It did not respond when asked if Tsai would have contact with any other U.S. officials.

Seeking to bolster Taiwan’s defenses, the United States this week approved an arms sale worth an estimated $2.2 billion for Taiwan, despite Chinese criticism.

Tsai, who is up for re-election in January, has repeatedly called for international support to defend Taiwan’s democracy in the face of Chinese threats. Beijing has regularly sent military aircraft and ships to circle Taiwan on drills in the past few years.

Douglas Paal, who served as U.S. representative to Taiwan from 2002 to 2006, said Tsai’s extended stopovers showed U.S. approval for the “caution and restraint” she had shown in her dealings with Beijing.

“It makes sense to reinforce that with generous transit treatment,” he said. “This is also … a message to China. The U.S. government believes Tsai is behaving responsibly in respecting the framework of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations.”

Paal said the Trump administration had yet to indicate a significant shift in the traditional U.S. approach to Taiwan, but this could change in the event of a deterioration of U.S. relations with Beijing.

“It’s like an engine running at a high idle,” he said. “Trump has not engaged the gears, but there is a lot of activity at lower levels seeking to upgrade relations. So change has not occurred in a big way yet, but it could happen at any time. With unpredictable consequences.”

(Reporting by I-Hwa Cheng; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee in Taipei and David Brunnstrom in Washington; writing by Ben Blanchard; editing by Leslie Adler and James Dalgleish)

Hong Kong protesters smash up legislature in direct challenge to China

Anti-extradition bill protesters use the flashlights from their phones as they march during the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

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.

Protesters break into the Legislative Council building during the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China in Hong Kong China July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Protesters break into the Legislative Council building during the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China in Hong Kong China July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

THOUSANDS RALLY

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)

Security tight in Tiananmen 30 years after students ‘died for nothing’

Thousands of people take part in a candlelight vigil to mark the 30th anniversary of the crackdown of pro-democracy movement at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, at Victoria Park in Hong Kong, China June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina

BEIJING (Reuters) – Tourists thronged Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Tuesday amid tighter-than-usual security, although most visitors approached by Reuters said they were unaware of the bloody crackdown on student-led protests 30 years ago or would not discuss it.

Paramilitary officers keep watch in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Paramilitary officers keep watch in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, when Beijing sent troops and tanks to quell pro-democracy activists, is not spoken of openly in China and will not be formally marked by the government, which has ramped up censorship.

A 67-year-old man surnamed Li, sitting on a bench about a 10-minute walk from the square, said he remembered the events of June 4, 1989, and its aftermath clearly.

“I was on my way back home from work. Changan Avenue was strewn with burned-out vehicles. The People’s Liberation Army killed many people. It was a bloodbath,” he said.

Asked if he thought the government should give a full account of the violence, he said: “What’s the point? These students died for nothing.”

Among the students’ demands in 1989 were a free press and freedom of speech, disclosure of leaders’ assets and freedom to demonstrate. However, exiled former protest leaders say those goals are further away in China than ever before because the government has in the past decade suppressed a civil society nurtured by years of economic development.

Tiananmen also remains a point of contention between China and many Western countries, which have implored Chinese leaders to account for giving the People’s Liberation Army the order to open fire on their own people.

China’s foreign ministry denounced criticism by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who called for China to release all political prisoners and offered his salute to “the heroes of the Chinese people who bravely stood up 30 years ago in Tiananmen Square to demand their rights”.

Thousands of people take part in a candlelight vigil to mark the 30th anniversary of the crackdown of pro-democracy movement at Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989, at Victoria Park in Hong Kong, China June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Thousands of people take part in a candlelight vigil to mark the 30th anniversary of the crackdown of pro-democracy movement at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, at Victoria Park in Hong Kong, China June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a daily news briefing in Beijing that Pompeo had “maliciously attacked China’s political system”.

Some people in the United States were so accustomed to wagging their tongues on the pretext of democracy and human rights and interfering in other countries’ internal affairs, that they turned a blind eye to their own problems, he added.

“The Chinese people have seen their hypocrisy and evil motives,” Geng said. “These lunatic ravings and babblings are destined for the garbage heap of history.”

China has never released a final death toll from the events on and around June 4. Estimates from human rights groups and witnesses range from several hundred to thousands.

TIGHT SECURITY

Security was heavy in and around the square itself, with no signs of any protests or memorials.

Hundreds of uniformed and plainclothes police monitored the square and its surroundings, conducting spot ID checks and inspecting car trunks. Thousands of visitors lined up at security checkpoints to enter the square, many carrying tour group flags.

A male tourist in his 30s near the square, who gave his family name as Zhang, said he had no idea about the anniversary.

“Never heard of it,” he said. “I’m not aware of this.”

An older woman applying grout to a building close to the square’s southern entrance said: “That’s today? I’d forgotten.” She quickly waved away a Reuters reporter when security guards approached. Her colleague, a younger man, said he had never heard of the events in the spring and summer of 1989.

Rights groups said authorities had rounded up dissidents in the run-up to the anniversary. Amnesty International said police had detained, put under house arrest, or threatened dozens of activists in recent weeks.

The United Nations had received reports of detentions, threats and increased censorship ahead of the anniversary, U.N. human rights spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani said in Geneva.

“We have made our concerns known to the Chinese government and we are working to also verify these reports that we have received,” she said.

While no public events to mark the anniversary will be tolerated in mainland China, demonstrators gathered in Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997. There will also be events in self-ruled and democratic Taiwan, which China claims as its own.

One online censor, who worked a shift of more than 12 hours until early morning on Tuesday for Twitter-like social media site Weibo, said content removed included memes, video game references and images including Tuesday’s date.

“Some accounts are totally taken down, but mostly the content is just removed,” said the censor. “People like to play games and see what is possible to post.”

Financial information provider Refinitiv, under pressure from China’s government, has removed from its Eikon terminal Reuters news stories related to the anniversary.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina; Additional reporting by Cate Cadell in BEIJING, Yimou Lee in TAIPEI, David Lawder in WASHINGTON and Stephanie Nebehay and Marina Depetris in GENEVA; ; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)

Timeline: From reform hopes to brutal crackdown – China’s Tiananmen protests

FILE PHOTO: Hundreds of thousands of people fill Beijing's central Tiananmen Square, China, May 17, 1989 in front of the Monument to the People's Heroes and Mao's mausoleum. REUTERS/Ed Nachtrieb/File Photo

BEIJING (Reuters) – Next Tuesday, June 4, marks 30 years since China bloodily suppressed pro-democracy demonstrations in and around central Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, when Chinese troops opened fire on their own people.

The event remains a taboo topic of discussion in China and will not be officially commemorated by the ruling Communist Party or government.

FILE PHOTO: Student protesters construct a tent to protect them from the elements in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, May 26, 1989. REUTERS/Shunsuke Akatsuka/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Student protesters construct a tent to protect them from the elements in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, May 26, 1989. REUTERS/Shunsuke Akatsuka/File Photo

Here are some landmark dates leading up to the demonstrations and the crackdown that followed:

1988: China slides into economic chaos with panic buying triggered by rising inflation that neared 30 percent.

April 15, 1989: A leading reformer and former Communist Party chief Hu Yaobang, dies. His death acts as a catalyst for unhappiness with the slow pace of reform, as well as corruption and income inequality.

April 17: Protests begin at Tiananmen Square, with students calling for democracy and reform. Crowds of up to 100,000 gather, despite official warnings.

April 22: Some 50,000 students gather outside the Great Hall of the People as Hu’s memorial service is held. Three students attempt to deliver a petition to the government, outlining their demands, but are ignored. Rioting and looting take place in Xian and Changsha.

April 24: Beijing students begin classroom strike.

April 27: Around 50,000 students defy authorities and march to Tiananmen. Supporting crowds number up to one million.

May 2: In Shanghai, 10,000 protesters march on city government headquarters.

May 4: Further mass protests coinciding with the anniversary of the May 4 Movement of 1919, which was another student and intellectual-led movement for reform. Protests coincide with meeting of Asian Development Bank in Great Hall of the People. Students march in Shanghai and nine other cities.

May 13: Hundreds of students begin a hunger strike on Tiananmen Square.

May 15-18: To China’s embarrassment, protests prevent traditional welcome ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People for the state visit of reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Students welcome Gorbachev as “The Ambassador of Democracy”.

May 19: Party chief Zhao Ziyang visits students on Tiananmen Square, accompanied by the hardline then-premier Li Peng and future premier Wen Jiabao. Zhao pleads with the students protesters to leave, but is ignored. It is the last time Zhao is seen in public. He is later purged.

May 20: Li declares martial law in parts of Beijing. Reviled by many to this day as the “Butcher of Beijing”, Li remained premier until 1998.

May 23: Some 100,000 people march in Beijing demanding Li’s removal.

May 30: Students unveil the 10-metre (33 ft) high “Goddess of Democracy”, modeled on the Statue of Liberty, in Tiananmen Square.

May 31: Government-sponsored counter-demonstration calls students “traitorous bandits”.

June 3: Citizens repel a charge towards Tiananmen by thousands of soldiers. Tear gas and bullets used in running clashes a few hundred meters (yards) from the square. Authorities warn protesters that troops and police have “right to use all methods”.

June 4: In the early hours of the morning tanks and armored personnel carriers begin their attack on the square itself, clearing it by dawn. About four hours later, troops fire on unarmed civilians regrouping at the edge of the square.

June 5: An unidentified Chinese man stands in front of a tank convoy leaving Tiananmen Square. The image spreads around the world as a symbol of defiance against the crackdown.

June 6: Chinese State Council spokesman Yuan Mu says on television that the known death toll was about 300, most of them soldiers with only 23 students confirmed killed. China has never provided a full death toll, but rights groups and witnesses say the figure could run into the thousands.

June 9: Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping praises military officers, and blames the protests on counter-revolutionaries seeking to overthrow the party.

Sources: Reuters, Chinese state media.

(Writing by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina, and David Cutler, Reuters archive in London; Editing by Neil Fullick)