Police used pepper spray on protesters in Hong Kong on Sunday evening as thousands rallied against Beijing’s plans to intervene in a political standoff over two local lawmakers who insulted China in the city’s legislature.
The conflict was the latest sign of a deepening rift between Beijing and many in Hong Kong over how much autonomy the city should have. Hong Kong is allowed to govern itself under a miniconstitution—the Basic Law—and has an independent judiciary. But Saturday, China’s top legislative body said it is prepared to override Hong Kong’s legal authority over how to handle the local lawmakers’ actions, which Beijing denounced as a threat to national security.
The Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress said Saturday it would issue its own interpretation of the Basic Law as Beijing “cannot afford to sit idle” when faced with challenges to its authority over Hong Kong, according to the government-run Xinhua News Agency.
On Sunday, thousands marched in central Hong Kong to protest against China’s looming intervention. In scenes reminiscent of the city’s mass pro-democracy protests of 2014, video taken by local press showed police spraying the crowd and protesters protecting themselves with umbrellas.
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Hundreds of protesters gathered near Western Street, in the city’s Sai Ying Pun district, as the march against China’s reinterpretation of the Basic Law turned into a standoff with the police. People held umbrellas aloft and wore face masks to protect themselves from the pepper spray.
“We were trying to occupy Connaught Road…but there were too many police and there were some conflicts between us,” said Hayley Lee, 27, an airline cabin-crew member. “They used pepper spray. We tried to step back and fight again, but they kept on spraying.”
In the crowd, familiar faces from the 2014 pro-democracy protests, known as the Umbrella Movement, were present.
“The police was using very brutal violence to depress us,” said Nathan Law Kwun-chung, the 23-year-old newly elected “localist” who has advocated for greater autonomy from China. “We were very angry because we think that for such an important issue, we at least have our right to protest,” he said of police attempts to move the crowd near China’s official Liaison Office on Connaught Road.
As the night wore on, rows of police held their lines, while others looked on from the steps of the Western Police Station. Officers stood with shields, warning protesters to keep maintain control and stay calm.
Protesters continued to mill around, disorganized, and many were unsure about whether they would stay out for whole night. Still, they agreed they wanted to take a stand with Beijing’s decision expected to be made Monday.
“We don’t know what’s the next move,” said Hang Tsoi, 25, who is also a cabin-crew member. “We are just trying to occupy.”
Around 1:00 a.m., Joshua Wong, a member of Demosisto (one of the political parties that participated in the evening protest) said several groups had announced the demonstration was over in order to avoid a “major sacrifice” amid the “unfavorable situation.”
The group called on the protesters to leave the scene.
Hong Kong started legal proceedings Thursday over whether its legislature should allow two politicians who advocate for greater Hong Kong autonomy to take office, after the pair staged an anti-China protest at their swearing-in ceremony last month.
Beijing’s interpretation of the relevant provision in Hong Kong’s Basic Law would supersede any local court ruling and Hong Kong lawyers have expressed concern that such an intervention would undermine the city’s semiautonomous status.
The NPC Standing Committee, which added deliberations over the Basic Law to its agenda during a regular meeting this past week, said its intervention was “timely and necessary” to prevent a nascent Hong Kong independence movement from damaging the city’s “stability,” Xinhua reported.
The two politicians, democratically elected to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council in September, “have hit the bottom line of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and posed a grave threat to national sovereignty and security,” the Standing Committee said, according to Xinhua.
In October, Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Leung attempted to swear in as Legislative Council members while modifying their oath of office to pledge to defend a “Hong Kong nation,” displaying a banner stating “Hong Kong is not China,” and using a derogatory term for China.
The council barred their oaths, while their subsequent attempts to retake their oaths were rebuffed by the council president pending a local court ruling on whether the two had disqualified themselves from office.
The legal proceedings center on article 104 of the Basic Law, which states that legislators must swear allegiance to the “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China.”
The Standing Committee discussed a draft interpretation of that article on Saturday, the details of which weren’t disclosed in Xinhua’s report. The committee is expected to vote on the interpretation before its meeting concludes Monday.
Earlier Sunday, protesters began gathering in central Hong Kong to march in the streets, carrying banners and shouting slogans.
“We are here to oppose the Chinese government’s so-called re-explanation of the law,” said Sunny Chan, 38 years old, who works in the investment field.
Some protesters see it as a move by Beijing to undermine the rules established when Hong Kong was handed over to China by the U.K. in 1997.
“I want them to keep the agreement of the basic law, give us universal suffrage and keep the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ as it was listed,” said Chris Fan, who works for an IT firm.
Still, others held modest expectations for what the march would achieve.
“I don’t think marching will do any good,” said Ives Cheng, 25, who is unemployed. “It’s just an act to demonstrate our anger.”
Beijing’s ruling would be only the fifth time since Hong Kong’s handover in 1997 that China has interpreted the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s miniconstitution. On previous occasions, Beijing has issued rulings—upon request from the city’s government—over the right of abode in Hong Kong and how many years the city’s top official should serve after his predecessor resigned midterm.
This time, however, Hong Kong authorities hadn’t asked China to issue an interpretation, local government lawyers and legislators said.
Beijing’s move to rule in the matter would “deal a severe blow to the independence of the judiciary and the power of final adjudication of the Hong Kong court,” the Hong Kong Bar Association said in a statement Wednesday.
China Set to Rule on Furor Over Hong Kong Lawmakers — HK Police police use pepper spray to push back protesting crowds (As links to several other related articles)
Tags: advocates of independence for Hong Kong, Basic Law, China, China’s top legislative body, Communist Party of China, democratically elected lawmakers, Demosisto, Hong Kong, Hong Kong Bar Association, Hong Kong lawmakers refuse to take an oath to China, Hong Kong police, Hong Kong’s legal authority, independence, Joshua Wong, legislature, Leung Chun-ying, march against China’s reinterpretation of the Basic Law, pepper spray, Pro-Democracy Demonstrations, Sai Ying Pun district, Sixtus Leung,, Yau Wai-ching