Hong Kong police retook parliament from protesters on Tuesday after firing tear gas to disperse hundreds who ransacked the building in a day of unprecedented chaos and political violence on the anniversary of the territory’s handover to China.
The financial hub has been rocked by three weeks of huge demonstrations against an unpopular bill that would allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland.
Late on Monday, young, masked protesters — many wearing yellow hard hats — broke into the legislature after clashes with police.
They ransacked the building, daubing its walls with anti-government graffiti in an unparallelled challenge to city authorities.
Police warned of an impending crackdown and just after midnight officers moved in from several directions, firing tear gas and wielding batons as they charged, sending plumes of smoke drifting across the heart of the financial hub and scattering the demonstrators.
Earlier in the day, huge crowds of peaceful democracy activists staged a march calling for the city’s pro-Beijing leader to step down and reverse what they see as years of sliding freedoms.
But the atmosphere deteriorated as Monday wore on and a hardcore group of protesters breached parliament after hours of siege.
Once inside they tore down portraits of the city’s leaders, hoisted a British colonial-era flag in the main chamber and sprayed the city crest with black paint.
“There are no violent protesters, just tyranny,” one banner that was hoisted above the podium read.
“Hong Kong is not China,” read another.
Many protesters said they felt compelled to take the action because the city’s pro-Beijing leaders had ignored public sentiment following marches against the loathed extradition law.
“We have marched, staged sit-ins… but the government has remained unmoved,” Joey, a 26-year-old protester, told AFP as he walked over shattered glass inside the building.
“We have to show the government that we won’t just sit here and do nothing.”
A protester surnamed Cheung, 24, added: “We know that this is breaking the law, but we have no choice”.
The past three weeks of rallies are the sharpest expression of fears over Chinese influence on the territory in decades.
Protesters accuse Beijing of stamping down on the city’s freedoms and culture with the help of the finance hub’s unelected leaders.
But the increasingly hardline tactics from some protesters have alienated some, with a large counter-rally in support of the police taking place on Sunday.
Although Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, it is still administered separately under an arrangement known as “one country, two systems”.
The city enjoys rights and liberties unseen on the autocratic mainland, but many residents fear Beijing is already reneging on that deal.
Activists have organised a march every handover anniversary, calling for greater democratic freedoms — such as the right to elect the city’s leader.
They have mustered large crowds in recent years — including a two-month occupation of parts of the city centre in 2014 — but have failed to win any concessions from Beijing.
This year’s rally is framed by unprecedented anti-government protests that have drawn millions, with the public angry over police use of tear gas and rubber bullets.
The spark for the current wave of protests was an attempt by chief executive Carrie Lam to pass the Beijing-backed extradition law, which she has now postponed following the public backlash.
But she has resisted calls to permanently shelve the law or step down.
As a result the demonstrations have morphed into a wider movement against her administration and Beijing.
Lam — who has kept out of the public eye since her climbdown and has record low approval ratings — attended a flag-raising ceremony early on Monday, marking the moment the city returned to Chinese ownership 22 years ago.
Her speech stuck to the conciliatory tone she has used in recent weeks saying she recognised conflict had broken out.
“It has made me fully understand that as a politician, I need to be aware and accurately grasp the feelings of the people.”
Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said his country’s support for Hong Kong and “its freedoms is unwavering” and urged restraint from protesters in comments echoed by the European Union.
But activists have vowed to keep up their civil disobedience campaign.
“Whatever happens we won’t lose heart,” Jason Chan, a 22-year-old accountant added. “Resistance is not a matter of a day or a week, it is long term.”