HONG KONG—Wave after wave, the largest protest rallies the city has ever seen have been moving through Hong Kong’s streets.
Since June, there have been sustained calls for its top political figure, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, to step down. Hongkongers also want her to withdraw a bill that would enact into law Beijing’s ability to extradite its opponents to mainland China, where individuals who are politically non-compliant are hardly given fair trials.
The opposition escalated on Monday. The day marked 22 years since the British government handed over sovereignty of Hong Kong to the Chinese Communist Party.
Clad in yellow hard hats and masks, several dozen protesters, mostly in their twenties, spent hours ramming through the reinforced glass façade of the Legislative Council building, where matters of government are debated and ratified. If the legislative sessions weren’t disrupted by the extreme snapback that the city saw in mid-June, this is where the extradition law would have been passed.
Protesters tore down and dismantled a gate, then used its metal bars to pummel the building’s glass exterior. They fashioned a makeshift battering ram, repeatedly crashing it into one pane. As much as possible, they limited photography to maintain anonymity. They hoisted umbrellas to prevent CCTV systems from capturing images of them. Then they smashed surveillance cameras that lined the interior of the building’s ground floor.
Throughout the day, there didn’t seem to be a definite plan. These protesters were simply angry, sick of how mass marches have barely moved the needle. They wanted to storm what they interpreted as a center of power, but they weren’t sure what they would do if they succeeded.
A few pro-democracy lawmakers attempted to talk them down, but one masked man simply replied, “We are prepared. Three people have already died.”
He was referring to one man and two women had fallen to their deaths in the past two weeks after leaving messages for others who oppose the extradition law, invoking the struggle to counter the Chinese Communist Party’s influence in their final words.
Police in riot gear who had been waiting all day within the Legislative Council building eventually retreated. The protesters made it into the building, smashing things they saw that were breakable (though someone had put up a sign to request they not damage anything in the library). They defaced and tore down photo portraits of pro-Beijing lawmakers, and then entered the chamber where legislators meet weekly. The fire alarm blared. Ever organized, the protesters airdropped the building’s evacuation map to each other.
And then the occupation began.
The British colonial flag was draped over the podium. A yellow poncho symbolizing the movement’s first casualty was pinned to the wall inside the chamber. A litany of demands was spray-painted onto the walls, calling for the resignation of Carrie Lam, an overhaul of Hong Kong’s governance system, the release of protesters who had been arrested, and more.
Parallels to Taiwan’s 2014 Sunflower Movement, where students and civic groups entered the Legislative Yuan and remained for roughly three weeks, were not lost on those who managed to storm the meeting hall.
There was one worry that shot through clusters of the crowd. They had, for weeks, been labeled as “rioters” by the government, even though the resistance had been largely passive. The evening’s developments, however, provided fuel for that unwanted characterization.
The night before, a group managed to take down a Chinese national flag, replacing it with a black flag showing a white bauhinia—the city’s floral emblem—in its center. It was a symbolic gesture that didn’t dampen the official celebration of the handover attended by the city’s political elite—an annual affair that Hongkongers feel little attachment to.
Rather, they hit the streets every year to voice concerns about how the social and political climate in the city is changing in ways that they do not condone. Lam’s proposed extradition bill aside, the people of Hong Kong are enraged by how a series of chief executives have failed to keep the city’s interests in mind, and instead have been eager to appease the CCP while attempting to slash the freedoms and rights that are in place. They’re infuriated by the police force’s willingness to use excessive force while dispersing crowds, at one point even firing directly at one of the city’s legislators. Just last week, more than 1,000 black-clad protesters sealed off entrances to the police headquarters, demanding the release of people who had been arrested at a demonstration.
Hong Kong’s black-shirt protests are the largest that the Chinese Communist Party has observed since 1989, when one million people gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, and more rallied in several hundred locations across the country. The ensuing crackdown, with tanks rolling through the capital and perhaps several thousand casualties (there’s no way to pin down a precise number), remains a painful chapter in modern Chinese history, and the CCP pulls out all the stops to scrub mentions of it online, in all forms of media, and in classrooms.
Censors—whether appointed by the state or big tech companies—apply the same treatment to Hong Kong’s protests. The feeds to TV news reports by international media outlets are killed. Searches of “Hong Kong” on Chinese social-media platforms yield generic information about the city like that you may find on Wikipedia, or fluff pieces that say Hongkongers are celebrating on this day.
And what does this all mean? Right now, Hong Kong is a city where sorrow, rage, despair, and determination flow through its people. Carrie Lam has suspended the extradition bill, but the issues at play run much deeper. Young people are risking lengthy prison sentences to break into an empty building so they can express their frustrations with a system that, to them, offers no meaningful future—and perhaps little reason to remain. For now, there are worries that an intense day just raised the stakes for the powers that be, and that Hong Kong’s police force or even the People’s Liberation Army may commit to a violent crackdown.
As all those mental states mingled and guided the night’s actions, people are left wondering what the next step is.