Scuffles erupt in Hong Kong legislature as eased coronavirus rules herald new unrest

With public health concerns over the covid-19 outbreak fading — Hong Kong recorded zero new cases Friday, for the 12th time in the past 19 days — the territory is bracing for pro-democracy protests to return to the streets and a sharp rise in political tensions ahead of legislative elections in the fall.

The spark for the tussle was a dispute over the leadership of a crucial committee in Hong Kong’s legislature. The body’s House Committee has been unable to function for months, gridlocked over whether it should be led by pro-Beijing lawmaker Starry Lee or Democrat Dennis Kwok.

The paralysis has meant that several pieces of legislation — including a contentious bill that would criminalize mocking the Chinese national anthem — have been held up. Beijing’s offices that oversee Hong Kong affairs warned that pro-democracy lawmakers were engaged in “malicious filibustering” and were using “dirty tricks” to stall the work of the legislature.

Several pro-democracy lawmakers on Friday attempted to stop Lee from chairing a meeting of the committee, accusing her of abusing her power. Both sides engaged in a shouting match that descended into physical altercations, according to live-streamed videos of the proceedings. Security guards moved to expel several pro-democracy lawmakers, while one, Andrew Wan, was carried away on a stretcher after falling and injuring himself.

The disorder triggered calls for protests in several districts Friday night, as many accused the pro-Beijing camp of staging an effective coup over the committee.

Separately, a handful of pro-democracy protesters gathered in the financial district to bring back a common form of protest last year — singing and chanting in shopping malls at lunchtime — before they were dispersed by police. Video footage showed student reporters pepper-sprayed by officers, and others were fined for taking part in the gathering.

The scenes appeared to set the political tone for the next few months. They were also a throwback to the same period last year, when lawmakers similarly fought — literally — over a now-shelved bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.

That proposal, seen by the pro-democracy camp as evidence of Beijing’s increasing interference in Hong Kong, unleashed eight months of sometimes violent political unrest that resulted in thousands of arrests and upended life in the Chinese territory.

Hong Kong plans to hold legislative elections in September, which could rework the political balance in the city in the favor of anti-Beijing democrats. Experts say the Chinese Communist Party is determined to avoid a result similar to last year’s local elections, in which pro-democracy candidates who want to uphold autonomy for Hong Kong swept a majority of seats.

Beijing, meanwhile, has continued to dig in. This week, the Chinese government’s top political office in Hong Kong described anti-government protesters as a “political virus” and accused them of seeking independence for the territory.

Beijing promised to preserve Hong Kong’s high level of autonomy and distinct way of life compared with mainland China until 2047, a half-century after China regained sovereignty over the territory from Britain. But the central government more recently has accelerated a clampdown in the financial center.

Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.

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