HONG KONG (Reuters) - Rival lawmakers scuffled in Hong Kong’s legislature on Friday in a row over electing the chairman of a key committee, a fresh sign of rising political tension as the coronavirus pandemic eases in the Chinese-ruled city.
Lawmakers shouted and pushed one another at the Legislative Council meeting. Some democrats charged at a line of guards, seeking to eject a pro-Beijing lawmaker who attempted to chair the meeting in a move that democrats said violated procedure.
Guards carried several democrats out of the chamber.
Beijing has accused the former British colony’s pro-democracy lawmakers of “malicious” filibustering to prevent some proposed bills from going to a final vote, effectively paralysing the legislature.
Democrats said the committee needs to elect a chairman first, before any legislation, including one bill that would criminalise abuse of China’s national anthem, can be discussed.
“I have the right to start this meeting,” said Starry Lee, of the pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, who attempted to chair the meeting from behind a wall of about two dozen guards in grey suits.
Democrats, who argue filibustering in the legislature is legal and an established international practice, responded by shouting “Starry Lee, step down!” and holding placards reading “ultra vires”, Latin for acting “beyond one’s powers”.
Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 with a guarantee of its much-cherished freedoms, such as an independent judiciary, not enjoyed on the mainland. Beijing rejects criticism that it is seeking to erode those freedoms.
Anger against the government remains widespread in Hong Kong, which was shaken by often-violent clashes between police and pro-democracy protesters in the second half of last year. Social distancing amid the pandemic has largely put a brake on protests since January, but demonstrations are expected to resume later this year.
A few dozen protesters gathered in a downtown shopping mall on Friday and sang protest anthems, before they were dispersed by police.
Last May, scuffles also broke out in the legislature over a proposed extradition law which sparked the protests and was later scrapped.
The arrest of 15 activists in April, including veteran politicians, a publishing tycoon and senior barristers, thrust the protest movement back into the spotlight and drew condemnation from Washington and international rights groups.
China’s Hong Kong affairs office warned on Wednesday that the city would never be calm unless “black-clad violent protesters” were all removed, describing them as a “political virus” that seeks independence from Beijing.
A war of words has intensified in the past few weeks, with Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong urging the local government to work to enact national security legislation “as soon as possible”, fuelling worries over what many see as further encroachment on the territory’s freedoms.
Reporting by James Pomfret and Jessie Pang; Editing by Marius Zaharia and Nick Macfie