Days after masked protesters stormed Hong Kong’s legislature, the city continues to be divided on whether it was unjustifiable violence or the understandable actions of desperate young protesters without other options.
On Monday – the anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to Chinese rule – hundreds of thousands of peaceful protesters marched in the city. Throughout the day however, thousands of protesters laid siege to the Legislative Council building, and late at night a few hundred, mainly in their teens and twenties and wearing protective gear, broke in and occupied it for several hours.
Once through the large metal shutters guarding the entry to the building, frustrated and angry protesters destroyed anything in sight in the building’s foyer and nearby area in a brief spasm of violence, though they left some rooms and objects untouched after the intervention of lawmakers.
Legislative Council meetings have been postponed until October as a result of the extensive damage to the complex. Commission members inspected the vandalism on Thursday and found damage to the building’s fire safety, security and communication systems as well as the security control room and meeting facilities, Legislative Council chairman Andrew Leung said in a statement.
He also said personal information was stolen when protesters removed computer servers and hard drives.
“The Commission understands that it is difficult to find a suitable alternative meeting venue and we agree that priority should be given to the restoration of the Complex with a view to reconvening the Council meeting in October,” Leung said. A number of “temporary measures” have been put in place and the hope is to lift the red alert “as early as next week.”
Certain public services in the complex will be suspended for a longer period of time, he added.
Pictures from a press tour through the building Wednesday show the extent of the chaos: Anti-police graffiti scrawled on walls, papers strewn across floors, smashed egg shells, and destroyed paintings.
One 31-year-old man, surnamed Poon, was arrested Wednesday in connection to the damage to the inside of the building on Monday night, Hong Kong Police said.
Six people aged 20 to 72 were arrested on Sunday, when a pro-police rally was held, although police did not clarify whether those arrested were involved in the rally. Another 12 were arrested on Monday morning for a “violent incident” in the vicinity of the legislative council, following clashes with police.
On Wednesday, police vowed to “bring the culprits to justice for any unlawful acts.”
The level of aggression seen on Monday – which came after a month of largely peaceful protests against a proposed law which would allow extradition to China – has been met with condemnation from some politicians and conservative voices.
Lawmaker Priscilla Leung was among a number of lawyers who signed an open letter Wednesday, calling the destruction “absolutely unacceptable” and “a disgrace.”
“We strongly condemn the thugs’ behavior in clashing, damaging and insulting the Legislative Council,” the letter read. “We fully support the police to enforce the law and arrest these mobs and safeguarding the law and order of Hong Kong.”
Xiang Zhang, vice-chancellor of Hong Kong University, also spoke out against Monday night’s events.
“I am disheartened by the violence that occurred in the Legislative Council building and would like to condemn such destructive acts,” he said in a statement. “In the face of present difficulties, I firmly believe that people with different viewpoints can coexist in a state of civility, and that the rift in the society could be healed if all parties are able to reach out and engage in constructive dialogues.”
But many others have spoken out in support of protesters, arguing that the government had failed to listen when protesters took more peaceful actions – including marches in June that attracted hundreds of thousands of protesters.
Civil Human Rights Front – which has organized multiple large-scale peaceful demonstrations against the law – said that the protesters had taken a step that “none of us were brave enough to take.”
“Our views towards different courses of actions may differ, but we sincerely hope that no one blames one another nor breaks off with one another,” the group said in a statement. “Just like us, the protesters love this Hong Kong. In fact, they might love this city even more than we do.”
Activist and singer Denise Ho tweeted on Wednesday that it was easy for people to “condemn violence” while looking at a few images from the outside.
“Dig deeper and you will understand the desperation in these kids, and the courage they have to be forging ahead of everyone, so they can find hope for everyone else.”
Others have criticized the police for failing to protect the legislature, claiming that they allowed protesters to break into the building and sack it in order to use photos of the destruction against the movement, an accusation authorities have pushed back on.
Although recent protests were sparked by the controversial extradition law, they have since become a touchstone for broader issues facing Hong Kong, including a lack of democracy and a perceived increasing encroachment of China on Hong Kong’s way of life.
When the former British colony was handed back in 1997, China agreed to that Hong Kong could maintain its freedoms and way of life for the next 50 years. Many Hong Kongers are concerned by the uncertainty of the future, on top of other social problems such as high property prices and cost of living.
CNN’s James Griffiths contributed reporting.