Angry protesters once again stormed the political heart of Hong Kong on Friday. In a series of rolling occupations, they forced the hurried evacuation of multiple government offices and shuttering of law courts. They also surrounded police headquarters in a siege that appears set to continue into the night.
The actions erupted after the embattled administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam refused to meet an ultimatum for her resignation and the withdrawal of a divisive extradition bill. However the government issued a statement around 8:00 p.m. local time saying that when the term of the current legislature ended, the bill would “automatically expire.” The government “will accept this reality,” the statement said.
Chanting a Christian hymn that has become the anthem of Hong Kong’s freedom movement, thousands of black-clad demonstrators began streaming into the forecourt of the legislature from early morning. They demanded the unconditional release of all protesters arrested to date and an investigation into the police handling of the demonstrations that have rocked the semi-autonomous enclave for the past 10 days.
Shortly after 11: 00 a.m., large crowds of protesters chanting “Withdraw [the bill]!” erected barricades on Harcourt Road—a key thoroughfare in front of the government headquarters that was the center of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. A banner hung across the road read “This Is Hong Kong Not China.”
Urged by recently freed activist Joshua Wong, crowds then marched on police headquarters at Arsenal Street, just under a kilometer away. They began taunting police and chanting for the release of prisoners. Officers retreated behind metal gates as demonstrators encircled the building and dragged barriers across Hennessy Road and a part of Queensway, both vital arteries.
Protesters are furious with the police over what Amnesty International alleged in a statement Friday was “unlawful use of force by police against peaceful protesters” on June 12, wounding scores. Amnesty claimed that the evidence against the Hong Kong police was “irrefutable.”
On Friday, agitated demonstrators plastered police headquarters with a sign reading “Fight to the bitter end” and photographs purported to be of people injured at the earlier demonstration. Barricades were erected across main entrances to prevent officers from leaving and small side doors were sealed with zip ties. Other used ladders to reach CCTV cameras installed along the building’s walls and covered them with duct tape.
Addressing the crowd through a microphone, Wong said “[Police Commissioner] Stephen Lo has to come down and face Hongkongers.” He told TIME at the scene: “It’s time for the police to apologize.”
In an emotional speech that followed, democratic lawmaker Hui Chi-fung addressed protesters saying: “We’ve never had so many people surround [police] HQ. So, all the police officers here, look around at all these angry young people, those who are telling the truth. I ask you to come out immediately to face them.”
Several protesters collapsed from heat exhaustion in the oppressive June temperatures, but in general the swelling crowd appeared set for a long blockade. Wilson Chan, 25, said he would stay through the night if necessary. “If officers start firing tear gas or attacking in any way, I’ll stay behind to help others.”
A section of the crowd almost forced an entry into the building when a gate jammed, but police were able to close it after what one witness described as a “dangerous situation.”
Protesters then threw up barricades on Gloucester Road, a major east-west highway, and staged sit-ins in the headquarters of Hong Kong’s taxation and immigration departments, barricading themselves in the latter. People were prevented from reaching the neighboring Wanchai Law Courts. Police were conspicuously absent.
“Hong Kong people aren’t protesters by nature. We enjoy having nice meals and playing computer games,” Michael, a 25-year-old protester and medical doctor told TIME. “I’d rather stay home and play computer games or listen to music, but we have no choice.”
Government workers were prevented from returning to their offices after lunch and were instead called on to join the protest. Civil servants already in the buildings began evacuating as protesters politely apologized for causing them inconvenience and held signs to guide them through the crowd. One protester held up a sign that read “I know this is hard for everyone. But we’ll get through this together.”
In the late afternoon, government offices on Queensway—home to several departments from transport to legal aid, marriage registration, and architectural services—were surrounded along with the city’s High Court.
The Secretary for the Civil Service, Joshua Law, said that contingency plans were being put in place to enable civil servants to work elsewhere. Hong Kong’s Secretary for Justice, Teresa Cheng, meanwhile apologized for the extradition bill, saying that the government had “learned a hard lesson.”
Just after 12:00 noon, police Senior Superintendent Yolanda Yu called on the crowds to peacefully end their blockade of police headquarters. Law enforcement officers said that the siege was delaying responses to emergency calls. A initial police attempt to negotiate with protesters was drowned out by angry chants and abandoned. Around 5:30 p.m., live TV close-ups showed what appeared to be a tense parley between officers and protesters across a metal barricade, but the talks broke up.
‘A long-term war’
By nightfall, the crowd had doubled in size and the atmosphere worsened as protesters donned hard hats and goggles as if preparing for a pitched battle. They began pelting the building with eggs and other objects. Democratic legislators appeared on the scene and called for calm, fearing large scale injuries should the building be stormed.
Karmen, a 20-year-old student, said she did not think the government would withdraw the extradition bill, but nevertheless “even when you know what the result will be, you still have to show up to show unity. You struggle to survive before you die.”
Student unions and other groups have been calling on Hongkongers to commit acts of “civil disobedience” in a movement that has widened from a protest against a divisive law into a rebellion for greater political freedom. It has also become a deepening embarrassment for Beijing. Many protesters wave the Union Jack, or the colonial Hong Kong flag, as a repudiation of Chinese sovereignty. One protester on Friday carried a banner reading “Return Hong Kong to Us.”
“This is a long-term war and we need to be strategizing next steps,” said Jeff, a 24-year-old protester outside the legislature.
Writing Thursday in British newspaper the Independent, Wong and fellow campaigner Alex Chow suggested that the movement’s aims were no longer confined to Hong Kong.
“Our long-term hopes rely on whether we can pressurize the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] to devolve its power to the people and implement genuine electoral democracy at various administrative and community levels,” they said. “We must remember that a democratic Hong Kong could lead to a more democratic China.”
Many in Taiwan likewise hope for a freer China and have been staging rallies in support of the Hong Kong demonstrations. As protesters gathered in Hong Kong Friday, a man with a microphone read aloud an anonymous message of support, sent from the island that Beijing regards as a renegade province: “Please don’t give up on what you are fighting to protect. You have awakened so many people who were asleep.”
On Friday, dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei released a video throwing his support behind the protesters and characterizing Hong Kong’s freedom struggle as being between “a disciplined and civilized world” and “an irrational society with no principles.”
‘The situation is now at a dead end’
The latest protests follow days of unrest. On June 9, huge numbers of people—more than a million, according to organizers—marched to protest the bill, which would, for the first time, have allowed the extradition of fugitives to mainland China. The government says the bill is necessary to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a haven for criminals, but critics fear that Beijing will use it to detain political opponents and silence its many detractors in the enclave.
On June 12, protests around the legislature turned violent, forcing the body, which is dominated by pro-Beijing lawmakers, to shelve a debate on the measure. More than 80 were injured in clashes with police, who used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear the streets.
Lam then announced that the legislation would be postponed, but this did not pacify Hongkongers, who turned out in even greater numbers on June 16 to call for the bill’s complete withdrawal and Lam’s ouster. The march, which organizers claim was two million strong, saw the young and the elderly, political activists and business figures, religious groups and families, all take to the streets in an unprecedented show of unity.
The marches forced a public apology from Lam for the extradition debacle, but it was criticized for being belated and insufficient. Protesters are now expected to step up their actions in the run up to the July 1 anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty. A protest has also been called for June 26. One woman told TIME Friday that demonstrators needed to be “less passive and reliant on waiting for the government’s move.”
Lawmaker Claudia Mo did not hold out hope for a negotiated solution. “The situation is now at a dead end,” she told local media. “Carrie Lam said she has apologized, but she is the one who caused this situation, and she must face it.”
Speaking earlier in an exclusive interview with TIME, Wong said the battle was far from over. “The Hong Kong government and Beijing have turned a whole generation of students from citizens to dissidents,” he said. “I think President Xi might be really angry at how Carrie Lam generated more than a million dissidents that live in and love this place.”
—With reporting by Laignee Barron, Amy Gunia, Abhishyant Kidangoor, Hillary Leung and Feliz Solomon / Hong Kong