Police and rescue workers used fire ladders and cut chains on Wednesday to remove pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong from a golden statue gifted to the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, ahead of a visit by President Xi Jinping to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1997 handover to China.
Climbing to the top of the Golden Bauhinia, a symbol that has represented the former British colony within the Chinese body politic for 20 years, protesters displayed a banner calling for the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo, who is in the hospital with late-stage liver cancer.
The banner also bore a slogan familiar from the 2014 Occupy Central movement in the city: "The people of Hong Kong want universal suffrage!"
The protesters also chanted: "We are Hong Kong people! We want full democracy! Release Liu Xiaobo!"
Student leader-turned-lawmaker Nathan Law, whose party Demosisto was founded by 2014 activists, said the protest was aimed at making a symbolic point on the eve of Xi's visit.
"A lot of people are saying that these things don't make any difference," Law said via his Facebook page as police gathered to remove the protesters. "All I know is, doing nothing would be letting down all of those people who have been prevented from speaking out even more: Liu Xiaobo and other political prisoners as well as members of the pro-democracy movement who have paid the price [for their activism]."
"No action is taken without cost ... but I do it because I believe that having a bit of faith, keeping a few sparks alive, may mean the opportunity for change in the future," he said.
"I will not give up," Law said, as members of the public and journalists were cleared from the site, and police stepped up their presence around the statue in Bauhinia Square.
Shortly after his post, police officers zeroed in on Lam and on Occupy Central student leader Joshua Wong, carrying him away from the area and forcing him into a police van, bystanders' photos on Twitter showed.
"Turn out in protest on July 1!" Wong yelled to the crowd, some of whom included bemused tourists from across the internal immigration border in mainland China.
"I still haven't really understood what they were trying to do," a tourist surnamed Li from mainland China told RFA at the scene. "What are they doing up there? It's pretty dangerous ... it's irrational."
A second mainland Chinese tourist said she had never heard of Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to a peaceful struggle for human rights, to the fury of Beijing.
Liu is described as a "criminal" by China's tightly controlled state media, and his Nobel award led to the freezing of China's ties with Norway for six years.
A third said: "It seems that there are differences between mainland China and Hong Kong. Hong Kong is pretty democratic ... If this happened in mainland China, they wouldn't let us hear about it, and the police would suppress it pretty quickly ... Even if we know about [corruption], we can't talk about it."
The rest of the protesters, who included veteran social activist and lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, were also removed and placed into waiting police vans, according to multiple posts to the Twitter hashtag #hksar20. Some had chained themselves to the statue.
Wong told RFA in an earlier interview that the occupation of the statue was part of the strategy of nonviolent protest by Demosisto and other activists.
"On the eve of Xi Jinping's visit, we want to prove that ... democracy and autonomy have been under constant attack," Wong said. "We chose to stage a sit-in at the Golden Bauhinia today ... to let the government know that we want to see one country, two systems all the way."
"We want to see an end to the suppression of freedom and democracy in Hong Kong," he said.
On Monday, Wong said that the high degree of autonomy promised to the city as part of the handover treaty is now under threat after two decades of Chinese rule.
"Our high degree of autonomy has been subjected to constant interference from the central government, and the Golden Bauhinia statue was a gift to our people from the central government," Wong said. "It has always been a false idol; it represents a lie."
Fears of a ‘terrorist incident’
Hong Kong police have already placed a huge security cordon around Hong Kong's convention center ahead of Saturday's handover celebrations, blocking off the area with two-meter-high water-filled traffic barriers amid a high security alert prompted by alleged fears of a "terrorist incident."
Earlier, social media posts showed two-meter screens in front of a colonial-era statue of Queen Victoria in Victoria Park, Causeway Bay, but government broadcaster RTHK said they had since been removed.
It quoted League of Social Democrats chairman Avery Ng, who had chained himself to the statue's "petals" and who was the last to leave, as saying that the protesters wanted to show public discontent with Beijing ahead of Xi's visit.
"We all know that Xi Jinping does not want hear any opposition voices while he’s in Hong Kong," Ng said.
"So we are here to protest with the true voice of Hong Kong and to voice our demand for genuine universal suffrage... and most importantly the immediate release of Liu Xiaobo for him to have proper medical treatment," he said.
The protest came after activists hung a large black cloth over the statue on Monday to symbolize mourning for the erosion of Hong Kong's traditional rights and freedoms since the handover.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker and trade unionist Michael Luk condemned the black cloth protest as "blasphemy."
"[This is] a statue imbued with so much meaning; that of shrugging off the yoke of more than 100 years of colonial rule," Luk said. "It is a blasphemous act ... that will cause unnecessary division in society."
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai said there is genuine concern about Beijing's interference in the internal politics and judiciary of Hong Kong, however.
"We call on [Xi] to return to the initial meaning of the one country, two systems principle, and to guarantee that Hong Kong people can run Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy," Wu said.
The Occupy Central campaign for fully democratic elections rejected Beijing's Aug. 31, 2014 decree that any move to universal suffrage in the city must include the vetting of candidates by its supporters, and called for "genuine universal suffrage."
At its height, hundreds of thousands of people poured onto the city's streets in protest, using umbrellas to protect themselves from sun, rain, and pepper spray, and giving the "Umbrella Movement" its nickname.
But the movement ended with no political victory, and amid accusations from Beijing that the protests were being orchestrated by "hostile foreign forces" behind the scenes.
Reported by Tam Lai and Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Ding Wenqi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.