Photo/Illutration A pro-democracy politician tosses paper into the air in a scuffle over control of a key committee that scrutinizes bills during a Legislative Council House Committee meeting in Hong Kong on May 18. (AP Photo)

HONG KONG--Scuffles broke out on Monday between pro-democracy and pro-government legislators in Hong Kong over the leadership of a key committee that could pave the way for a debate on a controversial China national anthem bill.

In chaotic scenes, pro-democracy legislators charged at security guards surrounding pro-establishment lawmaker Chan Kin-Por, who had taken the chairman’s seat in the meeting against procedural objections by the opposition.

Guards hauled several legislators out of the chamber, some kicking and shouting. Some tried leaping over the guards from benchtops to take back the chairman’s seat only to be forced back. The Democrats chanted “foul play” and held a placard reading “CCP (China Communist Party) tramples HK legislature.”

“It’s an illegal meeting. I hope you can leave immediately,” opposition lawmaker Ted Hui shouted at Chan.

Beijing has accused the former British colony’s pro-democracy lawmakers of “malicious” filibustering to prevent some proposed bills from going to a final vote, effectively paralyzing the legislature.

It was the second time in 10 days that have legislators pushed and shoved each other over the procedures of electing a chairperson. Last May, scuffles broke out in the legislature over a proposed extradition law which sparked often-violent protests and was later scrapped.

Even as the protests continued, Chan called a vote for a chairman of the committee that was won by pro-Beijing lawmaker Starry Lee.

“They can take away the rules of procedures today but I am sure the Hong Kong people won’t forget today,” said Democratic lawmaker Dennis Kwok.

The house committee’s role is to scrutinize bills before a second reading in the legislative council and has built up a backlog after failing to elect a chairperson since late last year. The backlog includes one bill that would criminalize abuse of China’s national anthem, which is expected to be given a second reading on May 27 despite the procedural chaos.

Protesters have been calling on social media for city-wide demonstrations on that day.

Social distancing amid the pandemic has largely put a brake on protests since January, but demonstrations are expected to resume later this year with the outbreak coming under control.

The arrest of 15 activists in April, including veteran politicians, a publishing tycoon and senior barristers, thrust the protest movement back into the spotlight and drew condemnation from Washington and international rights groups.

China’s Hong Kong affairs office warned this month that the city would never be calm unless “black-clad violent protesters” were all removed, describing them as a “political virus” that seeks independence from Beijing.

Beijing blames foreign forces for fomenting unrest and says protesters are undermining the rule of law in Hong Kong.