RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Hong Kong is marking a holiday today. It has been 22 years since Britain handed control of its former colony over to mainland China.
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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Cheering).
MARTIN: But the celebration that took place is not what the Chinese government had in mind. That's the sound of protesters cheering as they stormed the legislative building in Hong Kong, going floor to floor spray-painting walls and vandalizing offices. It was the culmination of a day of often violent demonstrations. This is all a protest against a legislative bill that would have given China more control over Hong Kong's justice system. For the time, that bill has been put on hold. NPR's Julie McCarthy is there in Hong Kong watching all of this unfold.
Julie, the protests seemed to have coalesced around this particular government building. Can you explain what this place is and exactly what you've seen transpire there?
JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Yeah. I was just at the Legislative Council building, which has been on the receiving end of various battering rams throughout the day today. But by 9 o'clock this evening, the protesters had busted through this heavy metal fencing, and they swarmed into the building. As you said, they ranged from floor to floor, about 250 to 300 of them, systematically vandalizing. Spray paint was the weapon of choice, and they sprayed graffiti on the walls, all over paintings. And some of it was reading, I want universal suffrage; release the righteous protesters. There's a number of them who are jailed. They smashed the security cameras, one after the other.
It was a remarkable capstone to a day that was supposed to showcase China and Hong Kong's unification. This was dissension at its rawest level, and it's about the protesters feeling that their rights and their freedoms are being eroded at the hands of the chief executive, who appointed by Beijing.
MARTIN: So what specifically are the protesters calling for - because, as I mentioned, the chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, put this particular bill on hold, which really catalyzed all this. Are there more action items that these pro-democracy groups are seeking?
MCCARTHY: Yes, there are. And they really do spill out of the extradition bill itself. And when it was put into suspension - or it was suspended, they want it totally withdrawn. But they also want Carrie Lam to step down. They demand an inquiry into the charges of police using excessive force with protesters in early demonstrations last month. That's an allegation against them. They want protesters who were jailed in those demonstrations to be freed. And they want direct elections of the chief executive. She's now effectively hand-picked by Beijing.
And if they weren't likely to win any of those demands before, after tonight, they can almost certainly guarantee that they will not. The government has condemned the destruction at the Legislative Council and said police would, quote, "take appropriate enforcement action to protect public order and safety." The police have not yet moved in, but they could do so shortly.
MARTIN: So does it feel, Julie, like this protest is going to come and go the way other pro-democracy movements have in Hong Kong? Because we've seen this before - I mean, 2014, there was this huge pro-democracy movement, and it kind of fizzled. It dissolved. Nothing came from it.
MCCARTHY: Well, I think - it's difficult to tell how Beijing will respond to this. They've got a full plate, obviously, apart from what's happening here in Beijing. But the - things do feel different here. The difference is that people express openly the belief that Beijing has well and truly eroded what has been their quasi-democracy. There's anger. There's distrust.
And a 54-year-old woman told me she couldn't blame the youth of Hong Kong for the destruction. She said they're restless; they feel helpless, and they're having to find their own way to fight for their rights. She said there is no one country, two systems - which is what the arrangement here is supposed to be. It's only one country, one system. And that's a growing sentiment on the streets of Hong Kong today. And that's a significant difference.
MARTIN: All right. NPR's Julie McCarthy, reporting from Hong Kong on this latest wave of protests taking place there.
Julie, thank you.
MCCARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.