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Hong Kong Lawmakers Physically Fight for Control of Chair of Key Committee

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Scuffles broke out between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing lawmakers in Hong Kong’s legislature Friday as they scrambled to physically take control of the chairperson’s seat for a key legislative committee.

It’s the latest sign that tensions over Beijing’s role in the in the former British colony are rising once again. But, it remains to be seen whether those tensions will boil over onto the streets. Some Hongkongers are calling for renewed protests now that coronavirus is almost entirely under control here.

The fracas began after a pro-Beijing lawmaker, Starry Lee, reportedly dashed to the podium to secure the seat after another meeting, according to local media reports. Others from her bloc and security guards surrounded her, and shouting matches and shoving ensued as members of the pro-democracy camp attempted to take control of the seat.

In videos circulating on social media, a pro-democracy lawmaker can be seen trying to scale a wall to crawl closer to the chairman’s seat, before being dragged down by security guards.

In another scene, pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo can be seen falling backwards into a chair after being struck by a placard thrown across the chamber. Another member of the pro-democracy camp was taken away by paramedics on a stretcher after being injured in the melee.

Several pro-democracy lawmakers were ejected from the room, with video of some being led away by security.

Mo tells TIME that she was shocked by the events. “Ultimately it means Beijing will trample on the Hong legislature at all costs, they’ll do anything they can to shut us down,” she says.

The opposing camps have been in a months-long standoff over electing a chair for the committee, which is responsible for scrutinizing bills before they are sent for a final vote.

The city’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has accused the pro-democracy camp of “malicious filibustering” to stop bills progressing through the city’s Legislative Council (Legco, as it is colloquially known). Beijing has also weighed in, criticizing the actions of pro-democracy lawmakers. Among the delayed bills is a controversial bill that would criminalize abuse of China’s national anthem.

Hong Kong’s Legco is designed so that the pro-Beijing camp holds a majority. Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Center for China Studies, tells TIME, that plays into why the pro-democracy camp has been stalling over the choice of a chairperson.

“The pan-democratic coalition doesn’t want to choose a chairman, because once a chairman has been chosen the pro-establishment camp has a majority they can pass all sorts of legislation,” he says.

Almost exactly a year ago, scuffles broke out in Legco between the opposing camps over an extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to be sent to face trial in the mainland, where the legal system is notoriously opaque. Widespread protests over the extradition bill, which was later withdrawn, plunged Hong Kong into months of unrest during 2019 and early 2020.

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Write to Amy Gunia / Hong Kong at amy.gunia@time.com