The symbolism of Hong Kong protests and why did police pull out

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Police constables are seen behind a shattered glass window in the LegCo complex before they pulled out of the building. Photo: Twitter via AP

A Flag of British Hong Kong, and other protest messages decoded

02 June 2019 | Viola Zhou | inkstone

Hundreds of Hong Kong activists stormed into the city’s legislature on July 1, the 22nd anniversary of the former British colony’s handover to Chinese rule.

One of their key demands was for the government to unequivocally withdraw a contentious extradition bill that critics said could blur the legal firewall between the semi-autonomous city and mainland China.

Hong Kong’s embattled government condemned the violent takeover of the building by mostly young demonstrators.

China’s central government also denounced the takeover, saying it backed an investigation into the “criminal responsibility of violent offenders.”

In the hours before police swooped in to clear the protesters, they ransacked the Legislative Council building, smashing fixtures, destroying portraits and defacing walls with spray paint.

They left a chaotic scene full of expressions of grievances towards the authorities that run deeper than any single piece of legislation.

Here are five key messages they left behind.

Protesters spray-painted Hong Kong’s official emblem in black. Photo: SCMP/Winson Wong

1. A blackened emblem 

In a symbolic moment, protesters spray-painted Hong Kong’s official emblem in black shortly after they took over the Legislative Council chamber.

The emblem combines Hong Kong’s bauhinia flower and the five stars of the Chinese national flag, and carries the city’s official name: Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.

Hong Kong was promised considerable autonomy when London handed it over to Beijing. But pro-democracy groups have accused Beijing of tightening its control and threatening the city’s civil liberties.

Although desecrating the emblem carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison, protesters directed their anger at it by defacing the flower and the characters “People’s Republic of China,” while leaving “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region” untouched.

A protester is tearing apart a copy of the Basic Law in the Legislative Council chamber on Monday.

A protester is tearing apart a copy of the Basic Law in the Legislative Council chamber on Monday.Photo: EPA-EFE

2. A torn-apart mini-constitution 

In the chamber, a few protesters tore apart a copy of the Basic Law, the constitutional document that serves as the legal foundation of Hong Kong.

For example, the law states that Hong Kong residents should enjoy the freedom of speech, of the press and of assembly. It also says the city’s leader will eventually be selected by universal suffrage.

But pro-democracy groups say the law has failed to protect Hong Kong’s freedoms against Beijing’s interference. They have, in the past, called the Basic Law “a piece of scrap paper.”

A protester is speaking to media inside the Legislative Council chamber.

A protester is speaking to media inside the Legislative Council chamber. Photo: SCMP/Winson Wong

3. A colonial-era flag 

A group of protesters draped a British Hong Kong flag on the lectern of the legislature chamber.

Few activists in the city actually want to become British colonials again.

But the flag is sometimes used to express their unique Hong Kong identity and discontent with Chinese rule after 1997.

The appearance of this colonial-era flag at the legislature has sparked heated debate online among the protesters themselves.

Opponents of the gesture say it could cause misconceptions and allow the Chinese government to blame local activism on “foreign forces.”

A protester is smashing the portrait of Legislative Council President Andrew Leung.

A protester is smashing the portrait of Legislative Council President Andrew Leung. Photo: SCMP/Sam Tsang

4. Defaced portraits

The portraits of three current or former pro-Beijing Legislative Council presidents have been destroyed by protesters. The photos of two lawmakers who had served in the colonial era were left intact.

The damaged portraits are former presidents Rita Fan and Jasper Tsang and current President Andrew Leung.

The demonstrators believe the Legislative Council, currently controlled by pro-Beijing lawmakers, does not reflect the popular views of Hong Kong.


Protesters spray-painted slogans like 'murderous regime,' 'officials force people to rebel' and 'release Edward Leung' inside the Legislative Council.

Protesters spray-painted slogans like ‘murderous regime,’ ‘officials force people to rebel’ and ‘release Edward Leung’ inside the Legislative Council. Photo: SCMP/Antony Dickson

5. Name of a jailed activist 

“Release Edward Leung” was also among the slogans painted on the wall.

Leung is a 28-year-old leader of a pro-independence political group who was jailed for six years in June 2018 for rioting and assaulting police.

The pro-independence movement in Hong Kong is a fringe campaign. But it has some supporters, especially among the younger generation.

Leung is one of the faces of the movement and wanted to take a more confrontational approach in achieving its aims.

Protesters leave the main chamber of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council early on July 2, 2019, after they stormed into the building hours before. Photo: AFP/ Anthony Wallace

Speculation rife over police pullback at LegCo

Conspiracy theories have been rife in Hong Kong on why the police suddenly pulled back their anti-riot squad in the city’s parliament, just before protesters rammed their way into the chamber on Monday evening.

Young, masked protesters began bashing down doors and windows to the Legislative Council (LegCo) building in the Admiralty area in the afternoon and ultimately broke into its ground floor lobby. They rampaged through rooms, scrawled graffiti, waved the colonial-era flag and covered the Hong Kong emblem with black ink, as more followed them and poured into the main chamber.

This occurred hours after officials in the former British colony, including embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam and LegCo President Andrew Leung, drank champagne with Beijing’s top envoys under heavy police protection to celebrate the 22nd anniversary of the city’s handover, in a banquet hall insulated from the clamor from a mass of demonstrators passing nearby.

Protesters behind umbrellas spray black ink onto the Hong Kong emblem inside the main chamber of the city’s LegCo complex on Monday evening. Photo: Facebook
A youngster waves a colonial-era flag in front of the Hong Kong emblem. Photo: Hong Kong TVB screen grab
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam, center, and top officials toast with Beijing’s envoys and guests on July 1 to mark the city’s handover. Photo: Handout

But it is worth noting that no one was injured, nor there was a single case of nearby shops or other property being ransacked. Protesters, while throwing a tantrum inside the LegCo, were careful not to destroy archives and valuable antiques. They even left cash inside a fridge as they grab drinks from a canteen there.

There were reportedly heated debates among them if they should remain inside the LegCo to force the government to back down, just like Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement in 2014, which saw the occupation of the island’s parliament, known as the Legislative Yuan.

The root cause of this latest protest was a controversial amendment bill to allow people accused of crimes to be extradited to mainland China.

Why did the police leave?

Two key questions have been asked about Monday’s wild scenes: 1/ Why did protesters storm the LegCo building? And 2/ Why were the police – officers in full riot gear guarding the LegCo – suddenly withdraw when protesters were banging on doors? This was a drama seen live on television from inside the building.

Not a single police officer was spotted after the pullback when protesters entered the LegCo at around 9pm, despite appeals from Leung and a number of lawmakers for police to guard the building.

The police’s absence contrasts sharply with the clashes on June 12 when elite squads raked the mob in Admiralty with tear gas, beanbag rounds and rubber bullets, after an anti-extradition bill rally ended with the main streets in the central business district being occupied.

It was only after midnight, when most protesters had left the building and fled to nearby streets, did police mount a clearance operation and fired a few canisters of tear gas to clear any remaining individuals.

The two chief superintendents from Britain, Rupert Dover and David Jordon, who led the head-on confrontation with protesters on June 12, were also seen commanding deployment at the scene on Monday.

Riot police are seen in Admiralty firing tear gas in the early morning of June 2 to disperse protesters who stormed the LegCo building. Photo: TVB screen grab

A joint statement issued by pro-establishment lawmakers in the wee hours of Tuesday condemned the “extreme violence” but did not question the police’s failure to protect the LegCo building.

Some observers believe the police’s soft handling of Monday’s rally could be a bid to sway public opinion and let people see that people storming LegCo were rabid thugs and rioters, even though the inaction was tantamount to condoning wanton vandalism.

They said letting radicals charge the parliament also shifted the focus from a peaceful rally yesterday when about half a million or so people took to the streets to demand that Lam scrap the extradition bill and step down.

Lam avoids grilling

Others said the drama saved Lam from being grilled by pro-democracy lawmakers, as she was previously scheduled to attend a question-and-answer session at the LegCo, the first such one since the June 12 clashes.

Hong Kong papers said on Tuesday the LegCo chamber was plastered with slogans while equipment and doors were damaged, meaning that parliament would remain closed until after the summer recess.

The police returned later and have been back in the building gathering evidence against the intruders.

Officers were bolstered by a show of support by tens of thousands of pro-government people on Saturday. However, that event was marred by confrontations with anti-extradition bill protesters.

The crowd, estimated by police at 50,300 at its peak, saw people chanting slogans and waving placards in supporting police over their handling of protests over recent weeks.

The Hong Kong Police Force had been accused of abusive action against “harmless” protesters during clashes outside the LegCo building on June 12 when tear gas and rounds of rubber bullets were fired, leaving at least 72 people injured.

The police called their action “very restrained”, but Amnesty International claimed there were 14 incidents of excessive use of force against the protesters.

Clashes during pro-police rally

On Saturday, pro-government lawmakers such as Maria Tam Wai-chu from Beijing’s Basic Law Committee, former police commissioner Tang King-Shing thanked officers for their restraint. However, a number of confrontations happened when the rally ended.

Videos showed some participants in the rally swearing and shouting slogans, calling anti-extradition bill protesters “Chinese traitors”. They were also seen tearing down posters put up by anti-extradition campaigners, such as notes on the so-called “Lennon Wall” outside the LegCo building. Other participants destroyed tributes set up to a protester who jumped to his death in Admiralty on June 15.

Lam Cheuk-ting, a lawmaker from the Democratic Party, was attacked by dozens of pro-police supporters on a bridge. Videos of the scuffle show him being slapped in the face, and someone used an umbrella to hit him as he was pushed towards the side of the bridge, Hong Kong Citizen News reported.

A 15-year-old girl named Kelly claimed she was punched on the nose by a pro-police participant while walking on a footbridge because she and a classmate were wearing black shirts and facemasks. She later filed a police complaint after being found to have a fractured nose, reported.

Journalists attacked

Journalists who covered the rally on Saturday were spat on, had mud thrown at them and were obstructed, abused and manhandled by pro-police groups, Radio Television Hong Kong reported.

Two journalists who were attacked ended up going to hospital for medical treatment. Police later arrested a 61-year-old woman for allegedly common assault.

The News Executives Association, the Journalists Association and the Press Photographers Association all issued statements strongly condemning the attack of journalists at the scene.

Meanwhile, the appearance of veteran Canton-pop superstars Alan Tam Wing-lun and Kenny Bee at the rally upset their fans. Tam reportedly said Hong Kong would be hopeless if protests persisted, while Bee said the younger generation should know what is right and wrong.

Fans of Tam and Bee later voiced disappointment. Some destroyed CDs put out by the stars to show their displeasure, Oriental Daily reported.

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One comment

  1. 6. The Umbrellas

    ..refer to the so called umbrella movement that emerged in the course of the Hong Kong democracy protests in 2014.
    Its name arose from the use of umbrellas as a tool for passive resistance to the Hong Kong Police’s use of pepper spray to disperse the crowd during a 79-day occupation of the city demanding more transparent elections, which was sparked by the decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) of 31 August 2014 that prescribed a selective pre-screening of candidates for the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive.


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