How to understand the symbolic occupation—and destruction—of Hong Kong’s legislature

Hear me out.
Hear me out.
Image: Getty Images/Anthony Kwan
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Hong Kong’s recent wave of demonstrations appeared to reach a dramatic climax yesterday night (July 1) when a fringe group of protesters broke into the legislature. For several hours, they occupied the seats of power in an attempt to get the local government to address their demands, which include the complete withdrawal of a hated extradition bill.

They destroyed the glass facade of the building. They tore up the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini constitution that sets it apart from mainland China’s legal system. They spray-painted over the city’s insignia, a bauhinia flower, but only the part that read “People’s Republic of China.” They put up the British colonial flag. They defaced the portraits of several former presidents of the legislature. And they scrawled a message for Carrie Lam, the city’s top official, on a pillar: “It was you who told me peaceful marches do not work.”

But they also took care to protect books and cultural artifacts, and made sure to leave cash behind for drinks that they helped themselves to, posting a handwritten sign (in Chinese) on the fridge that read, “We are not thieves. We won’t take without asking.” On their way out, some protesters swept up broken glass and placed them in rubbish bins.

To critics, the occupation and destruction of the Legislative Council building was a violent turn in events that go against the ethos of peaceful demonstration and civil disobedience. The Hong Kong government has roundly condemned protesters’ “extreme use of violence” while Beijing has decried their “atrocities.”

To others, the move is a cry for help from a marginalized and disenfranchised group of youths who have been forced to take extreme measures by an unrepresentative and unresponsive government, and for whom Hong Kong increasingly feels like a place where every opportunity is out of grasp. In storming the city’s heart of political power as politically powerless citizens, and targeting objects that to them represent the system’s inequities, the protesters delivered a scathing critique of the political establishment—albeit potentially at extremely high personal cost.

“The system has been crafted so that we are powerless to vote them out, so that to file a complaint against the police is to scream into a void, so that the powerful will never be held accountable – and so that to fight against the system that oppresses us is to be ‘uncivil,'” wrote one protester, Harold Li, in a Facebook post.

Joshua Wong, a young activist who recently served a prison sentence for his role in 2014’s Umbrella Movement, said that protesters who stormed the legislature had no other choice.

Some have observed that to a certain extent, the government’s handling of the mass protests of recent weeks has, whether intentionally or not, sent a message to demonstrators that merely peaceful rallies are not enough to sway official policy.

Even after more than a million took to the streets on June 9 to demand the withdrawal of the extradition bill, the government doubled down on its position and insisted on pressing ahead with the legislation. It was not until three days after tens of thousands occupied major roads on June 12, leading to violent clashes between protesters and police, that Lam agreed to suspend the bill indefinitely. Addressing the press on June 15, Lam seemed to imply that it was only the violent confrontations earlier in the week that made her realize the urgency of the situation.And it was not until another several days later that Lam finally personally apologized—even though many found it to be insincere.

As a result, protesters “felt angry, felt unjust, and also very fearful,” said Dixon Sing, a professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who studies Hong Kong politics. “They find that if all their peaceful and legal means cannot move the government, then what else can they do to preserve their freedoms and dignity?” 

Sing added that while the extradition bill is the immediate cause of the past month’s protests, and served as a “lightning rod” of accumulated political and socioeconomic frustrations from over the years, it is the structure of Hong Kong’s hybrid regime of power—in which citizens have a wide range of civil liberties but no free and fair democratic elections—that is at the root of the current conflict. “The hybrid regime is the most conductive to political instability of all regimes in the world,” he said. 

In a statement released by those who stormed the legislature, protesters called the lack of democratic elections as “the root of all evils.

Hong Kong does not have direct elections for the chief executive position, and its legislature is elected through a confusing, byzantine system that is designed to stack power in favor of politicians who are loyal to Beijing and big business. Opposition, or pro-democracy, lawmakers currently are a minority in the legislature, making it near impossible for them to vote down any legislation.

It’s not the first time that Hong Kong has been rocked by violent protests. In 2016, a riot—dubbed the Fishball Revolution—erupted in the district of Mong Kok when protesters clashed with police over what they saw as unfair treatment of unlicensed street food sellers during Lunar New Year. Yet that incident drew limited public support, in large part because the rights of hawkers seemed peripheral to citizens, Sing explained. The extradition bill this time around, however, threatens the core values Hong Kongers hold dear. “The nature of the goal is very different,” he said. “This time it’s about fighting to preserve Hong Kong’s original freedom and rule of law” 

Public opinion has also shifted to be more tolerant of militant tactics, said Samson Yuen, a professor of politics at Lingnan University.

“It’s a spillover of the fact that you have 2 million people on the street,” he said. “The same sentiment that got people out onto the street would also would also encourage more radical acton. You can’t expect 2 million people to come out and all think the same, and all go home peacefully.”