HONG KONG -- The embattled leader of Hong Kong pledged Monday to be more responsive to public sentiment, as police faced off with protesters outside a ceremony marking the 22nd anniversary of the former British colony's return to China.
Police used riot shields and pepper spray to push back hundreds of helmeted protesters who tried to advance down closed streets toward the harbourfront venue, where the Chinese and Hong Kong flags were raised together and two helicopters and a small flotilla passed by.
Hong Kong leaders, mainland China representatives and invited guests watched the ceremony on a screen inside the city's cavernous convention centre instead of outside as they normally do. The government cited inclement weather after light rain fell earlier in the morning.
City leader Carrie Lam said a series of protests that have attracted hundreds of thousands of students and other participants have taught her that she needs to listen better to the youth and people in general. Lam has come under withering criticism for pushing legislation that would have allowed suspects to be extradited to the mainland to face trial.
"This has made me fully realize that I, as a politician, have to remind myself all the time of the need to grasp public sentiments accurately," she said in a five-minute speech to the gathering.
She insisted the government has good intentions, but said "I will learn the lesson and ensure that the government's future work will be closer and more responsive to the aspirations, sentiments and opinions of the community."
Security guards pushed a pro-democracy lawmaker out of the room as she shouted at Lam to resign and withdraw the "evil" legislation.
A march planned for Monday afternoon was expected to be larger than usual because the extradition bill has awakened broader fears that China is eroding freedoms and rights guaranteed for 50 years under a "one country, two systems" framework. Two earlier marches against the legislation drew more than a million people, according to organizer estimates.
The government has suspended debate on the bill indefinitely, but protest leaders want the legislation formally withdrawn and Lam's resignation. They also are demanding an independent inquiry into police actions during a June 12 protest, when officers used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters who blocked entry to the legislature on the day debate on the bill had been scheduled to resume.
The police say the use of force was justified, but have since adopted softer tactics, even as protesters besieged police headquarters in recent days, pelting it with eggs and spray-painting slogans on its outer walls.
The area around Golden Bauhinia Square, where the flag-raising ceremony took place, was blocked off from Saturday to prevent protesters from gathering to disrupt it.
Protesters started setting up barricades across nearby streets about 4:30 a.m., leading to a standoff with police blocking access to the square. They began moving toward the police about 45 minutes before the 8 a.m. ceremony. The line of officers drove them back with plastic shields, the retreating protesters pointing open umbrellas to ward off pepper spray.
Associated Press journalists Raf Wober, Alice Fung, Johnson Lai and Dake Kang contributed to this story.