HONG KONG - Embattled leader Carrie Lam has lambasted the unprecedented trashing of the city's Legislative Council (LegCo) by protesters, describing it as shocking and saddening.
Speaking to the media at 4am on Tuesday (July 2), three hours after the police cleared out protesters, she said: "This is something that we should seriously condemn because nothing is more important than the rule of law in Hong Kong.
"I hope community at large will agree with us that with these violent acts that we have seen, it is right for us to condemn it and hope society will return to normal as soon as possible."
Protesters broke into and trashed the LegCo building on Monday night, on the 22nd anniversary of the British handover, escalating tensions in a city wracked by weeks of protests over a controversial extradition Bill.
Clashes spilled over into the streets outside the building past midnight with riot police firing tear gas as part of an operation to retake control of the complex. Dozens were sent to the hospital.
Amid the violence more than half a million people took part in an annual July 1 rally which was peaceful.
After storming LegCo, the protesters said they decided to occupy the building as the current government "no longer represents the will of the people of Hong Kong".
"The electoral system for the Legislative Council is incapable of reflecting public opinion, and functional constituencies, in particular, have become mere political tools.
"As such, we as citizens have no choice but to carry out a series of occupying and non-cooperative campaigns, leading to the occupation of the Legislative Council today."
The protesters said they had expressed their demands through various demonstrations since early last month but the government "shamelessly ignored the will of the people" and set them up as the enemy.
The protesters put forward five demands to Mrs Lam's administration:
- to fully withdraw the proposed Bill
- to rescind characterisation of the June 12 protest as a "riot"
- to drop all charges against anti-extradition protesters
- to set up an independent investigation committee to look into abuses of power by the police; and
- to implement universal suffrage of the executive and legislature by 2020.
Mrs Lam said the government had already responded positively to a key demand of the protesters, saying that, on June 15, she had announced that the Bill would be suspended.
She also said that she had repeatedly explained that by suspending the Bill with no timetable or plan to resume the debate in LegCo, it would either just expire or it would expire in June 2020 when the current LegCo term ends.
As for the rest of the demands, she said that they were not in line with the rule of law.
"The rule of law is exactly what I have been talking tonight. I hope we all agree that this is something of paramount importance to Hong Kong and will continue to guide the government's reactions and responses to social issues and to demands and aspirations of our people," said Mrs Lam.
Also at the briefing was police commissioner Stephen Lo, who dismissed speculation that the police set a trap for the protesters by letting them trash parliament.
Labour Party legislator Fernando Cheung charged that protesters walked straight into a trap set by the police, saying officers could easily have cleared the protesters away at 1.30pm when they first started to smash the glass entrances to the council complex.
"They wanted this to happen. They wanted the public to see it," said Mr Cheung.
But Mr Lo said his officers were under siege for almost eight hours and had to retreat for several reasons.
Protesters, he said, had started charging at the inner door of the LegCo and the police were unable to use some of the strategies that were meant for an open area.
Mr Lo also said some protesters had tampered with the electricity boxes that caused some lights to go out in the building and police were worried about a wrong move by either party. Police also had to retreat for fear of a toxic attack, he added.
In the clashes early on Monday, 13 officers were sent to the hospital after a poisonous liquid was thrown at them.
The Law Society, in a statement on Tuesday afternoon, strongly condemned the violent siege of the LegCo.
It said: "There is a line separating the lawful exercise of constitutional rights, as evidenced by recent peaceful demonstrations, from unlawful activity, which is and should be subject to sanctions and constraints. Where the line has been crossed, the police should take appropriate action to prevent criminal violence, secure observance of the law and uphold order for the protection of life and property."
The Law Society urged the government and the public to work together and restore trust and confidence in order to move forward.
Calm descended on the city Tuesday morning as the clean up began with workers removing posters left on the walls of the LegCo building and removing debris.
LegCo president Andrew Leung has said that all meetings scheduled for the next two weeks will be cancelled because of the extensive damage, including to fire safety and power supply, to the building.
This means LegCo would begin its summer recess now and unfinished business would be carried over to the next session.