A black flag flew over Hong Kong’s legislative complex at dawn Monday, the anniversary of the former British colony’s handover to Chinese control in 1997.
Pro-democracy demonstrators had occupied part of the complex overnight, taking down the Chinese flag and replacing it with a black flag featuring a withered, bloody bauhinia, the white flower at the center of Hong Kong’s red flag.
The symbol of a violent death to Hong Kong represents how many of the demonstrators, mostly people in their 20s and younger, view the changes in the semiautonomous region: tightening control from Beijing, a loss of the rule of law and freedoms of speech and assembly and increasingly authoritarian treatment of civilians.
Those fears have reached a fever pitch in the last month, with millions taking to the streets to protest an extradition bill that would allow Hong Kong to send suspected criminals to mainland China for trial.
Violent clashes erupted June 12, with some protesters throwing bricks at the legislative building and police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowds.
Since then, Hong Kong’s government has suspended the bill and promised not to push it further in the legislature. But protests have continued, raising demands for full withdrawal of the bill, independent investigation of police violence and Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s resignation.
Tens of thousands of pro-police demonstrators also marched Sunday afternoon, holding signs thanking officers for their service.
Three protesters have died, falling from high buildings after leaving messages against the extradition bill. Civil society groups are spreading word about mental health hotlines and trying to prevent suicides amid a growing sense of helplessness.
But protesters have also lionized the dead as martyrs, filling candlelight memorials with origami cranes, white flowers and messages of perseverance.
July 1 is meant to be a day of celebration. This year, Hong Kong’s government mobilized 5,000 riot police officers in advance and blocked off the flag-raising area with water-filled barricades.
On Monday morning, the government announced that the flag-raising ceremony would be moved indoors because of weather concerns.
As Lam arrived at a convention center to watch the flag raising on an LED screen, less than a mile away riot police clashed with protesters at the legislative complex. Hundreds of police used pepper spray and batons on thousands of protesters pushing forward and chanting, “Withdraw the evil bill.”
A band in white uniform played the Chinese national anthem live onstage. Lam and other officials sang along, watching a broadcast of the flag raising under light rain outside.
A helicopter flew overhead flying the Hong Kong and China flags, as protesters wearing helmets and masks looked up and swore to the sky.
Lam said in a speech that the Hong Kong government would try to be more open to public opinion, promising to meet personally with opposition parties and young people.
She then raised a toast “to the success and affluence of our motherland and the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.”
Outside, both the protest crowds and police squads continued to grow.