Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched in peaceful protest on Monday as Hong Kong commemorated its return to China in 1997, but the city was shaken by images of a smaller group of activists who broke into the legislature, smashed glass walls and spray-painted slogans in the inner chamber.
The split-screen protest offered vivid evidence that the divide in the former British colony is not merely between protesters and the Beijing-allied government — the protesters are increasingly at odds with one another.
On Monday, as activists armed with metal bars and makeshift battering rams were on the cusp of breaking down the doors of the Legislative Council, a group of veteran politicians sympathetic to their cause pleaded with them to reconsider.
Some were shaking their heads. Some were on their knees.
“Please ask if it’s worth it,” Claudia Mo, a lawmaker, told one black-masked protester. “Think about your mother.” At night, the protesters stormed into the legislature, building barricades inside and spraying messages on the walls calling for protesters who had been arrested last month to be released. “Murderous regime,” said one message.
The protest quickly became a broad repudiation of Chinese rule, with demonstrators tearing up copies of the Basic Law, a mini-constitution that took effect in 1997 and governs Hong Kong’s relations with Beijing, and calling for free and direct elections. One group raised a British, colonial-era flag.
“We need to let out our long-repressed emotions and to let the rest of the world know about this news,” said Kris Yeh, a 20-year-old protester who said he had helped smash glass doors and spray paint walls. Protesters mostly cleared out of the legislature after three hours of occupation. Then a cordon of riot police charged to disperse the crowd outside.
The confrontation at the legislature divided the demonstrators. Some denounced the actions of those who crashed into the building. Others were less critical, saying they could understand the anger.
“We have been too peaceful for the past few times, so the police think we are easily bullied,” said Natalie Fung, 28, who supported protesters with food and drinks outside the legislature. “The younger people are risking their safety and their futures for us.”
In Beijing, the state-run news media mostly ignored the protests. But they were perceived among some as a stark challenge to Mr. Xi’s rule, taking place on the 98th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China.
The unrest has put Mr. Xi, who has promoted an image as a tough, uncompromising leader, in a difficult position, as he grapples with the prospect of more clashes between the police and protesters, or removing Mrs. Lam, a chief executive whom he swore in two years ago. A peaceful march on Monday, shown in Causeway Bay, reached over a half-million people, according to organizers.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times Still, mainland experts said the chaos on Monday might give the central government confidence that the movement in Hong Kong was unraveling and could fade on its own.
“This movement has reached its end,” said Tian Feilong, the executive director of a research institute on Hong Kong policy in Beijing, citing the divisions between lawmakers and more extreme protesters. “It will cool down by itself.”
The political crisis might prompt officials to place even greater pressure on Beijing’s formidable network of sympathetic business executives, media outlets and civil servants in Hong Kong, experts say, such as by threatening employees of mainland companies whose children participate in the protests. “Those elements will be pushed to the max to elicit greater compliance from the population,” said Victor Shih, an associate professor of political economy at the University of California, San Diego.
The movement now enters a period of uncertainty. Arrests are likely. Divisions are growing among protesters. Without a recognized set of leaders, the demonstrations lack a sense of focus.
Victoria Hui, an associate professor who studies Hong Kong politics at the University of Notre Dame, said a successful protest required some level of coordination, even if it was decentralized.
“It cannot be leaderless,” she said. “They need better coordination. It’s not worth it to court arrest.”