HONG KONG -- Scuffles broke out at Hong Kong’s legislature Friday, with security guards ejecting several pro-democracy lawmakers including one carried out on a stretcher by medics after he was injured.
Tempers flared when a pro-Beijing lawmaker inserted herself as chair of a committee meeting to try to end a months-long impasse that has resulted in a backlog of legislation, including a controversial bill that would criminalize abuse of the Chinese national anthem in the semi-autonomous city.
Pro-Beijing lawmakers have accused pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok, the deputy chair of the House Committee, of stalling its work by blocking the selection of a new chair for more than six months. China publicly rebuked Kwok last month for holding up matters that affect public interest, sparking protests that it was meddling in Hong Kong's internal affairs.
On Friday, pro-Beijing lawmaker Starry Lee, saying she has the authority as the previous chair to preside over the meeting, occupied the seat more than an hour before the meeting's scheduled start. Security staff and other pro-Beijing lawmakers surrounded the bench to try to keep a large group of pro-democracy lawmakers at bay.
The two sides shouted at each other, with each camp holding up placards condemning either Lee or Kwok. Scuffles broke out when Lee called the meeting to order, with pro-democracy lawmakers rushing the bench as security guards shoved back. The guards carried out several pro-democracy lawmakers, including Eddie Chu and Ray Chan, who were ordered to leave due to disorderly conduct.
“I have not seized power, I am the incumbent chairperson of the House Committee,” said Lee, urging lawmakers to take their seats.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo called Lee a “vicious Beijing little worm,” and others chanted “Starry Lee, step down.” Pro-Beijing lawmakers countered that Kwok was abusing his power.
Most of the pro-democracy lawmakers eventually walked out of the meeting of the committee, which normally scrutinizes bills and determines when they can be put to a final vote. The session was later briefly suspended after pro-democracy politician Kwok Wing-kin, who was watching from the public viewing balcony, was dragged away by security guards after he threw a stack of papers down into the chamber.
In rebuking Kwok last month, China's liaison office in Hong Kong called for him to be prosecuted for misconduct in public office. The legislature's legal adviser, Connie Fung, who said last year that Lee does not have the authority to preside and a new chair must be elected, reversed her position Friday. She said Lee could preside because of the abnormal condition of a chair not being elected for six months.
It wasn't clear whether Lee's move ended the impasse, with pro-democracy lawmakers saying they would continue to fight. Dozens of anti-government protesters gathered in a nearby shopping mall in the evening, shouting pro-democracy slogans.
Beijing’s criticism of Kwok sparked debate over whether it has the power to intervene in Hong Kong’s internal affairs under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution.
The former British colony was handed back to China in 1997 under a “one-country, two-systems” framework in which Hong Kong was given freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland and promised a high degree of autonomy in its affairs for 50 years.
Differences between the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps were sharpened after months of sometimes violent protests sparked by an attempt to pass legislation — later withdrawn — that would have allowed suspects to be extradited to China to face trials.
Previously, the legislature had passed a motion allowing a bill that extended maternity leave to bypass the House Committee, and was criticized by pro-democracy lawmakers as setting a bad precedent for bills to pass without the scrutiny of the committee.