HONG KONG • Of all the dramatic visuals to emerge from the protests that have rocked Hong Kong in recent weeks, one stands out: the defaced city emblem left by demonstrators who stormed the legislature on July 1.
The image of Hong Kong's iconic bauhinia flower covered in black paint has become a symbol of the frustrations that sent hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets and drove some to vandalism.
The masked 20-year-old behind the graffiti, who would only give his last name as Lau, said he targeted the bauhinia because it would be "meaningful".
As Hong Kong gears up for another round of demonstrations today, interviews with Lau and others who broke into the legislature that evening suggest their anger with the government and its backers in Beijing is deeply entrenched.
While Lau is wary of becoming a police target after images of him spray-painting the city emblem were broadcast around the world, he said he still believes what he did was right. He said: "Hong Kong people are very stressed. The problems are endless."
The protesters interviewed by Bloomberg spoke of the underlying frustration and dissatisfaction towards the government that have accumulated among young adults over the years - from wealth disparity to out-of-reach home prices in the world's most expensive property market, and a sense of eroding democratic norms.
Lau's lack of regret underscores the persistent divide between protesters and Hong Kong's government.
Mrs Carrie Lam, the city's Chief Executive, suspended the extradition Bill that sparked the initial demonstrations last month but has refused to completely withdraw it or meet protesters' other demands. Hong Kong police began arresting suspects last week on charges related to the July 1 protests.
A protest planned for today illustrates how protesters are increas-ingly targeting China's overall influence on the city, rather than just the extradition Bill. Participants will march from Salisbury Garden, an area frequented by Chinese tourists, towards the high-speed rail station that connects Hong Kong all the way to Beijing.
People want to "protest against the regime", said Wayne, a 29-year-old freelance designer who was among the first demonstrators to enter the legislature on July 1.
"Anti-extradition is only one of the trigger points," he said. "Hong Kong hasn't had genuine democracy in the 20 or so years since the handover of sovereignty."
One of the reforms protesters are calling for relates to direct elections for the top office. Hong Kong's chief executives are currently chosen by a 1,200-member committee of mostly Beijing supporters.
For Lau, that is why a replace-ment for Mrs Lam - who started her third year in office last week - would not be enough. "The next one would be the same," he said. "We've seen how they're like."
The now-suspended extradition law which, if passed, would allow the transfer of suspects from Hong Kong to China, added to a list of worries that Beijing is encroaching on the "high degree of autonomy" promised for Hong Kong.
Mr K.T. Li, an unemployed 23-year-old, said he may escalate his actions in future protests as the government has failed to address his concerns, including the fear that Hong Kong will be highly monitored by Chinese authorities.
"If they want to name me a rioter, I accept that," Li said. "But I've been forced to become one. Whether what we do is right? It's for later generations to decide."