HONG KONG, July 27 2019 : Police fired volleys of tear gas during clashes in a rural Hong Kong town today as several thousand activists gathered to protest an attack by suspected triad gang members on protesters and commuters at a train station last weekend.
Police, widely criticised for failing to better protect the public from the attack by club-wielding men in Yuen Long, had refused to allow the march in the town on safety grounds.
But protesters pushed ahead and an initially peaceful action by several thousand in sweltering summer heat grew increasingly tense with stand-offs between police and protesters in several locations.
Rocks and bottles were thrown at police by protesters, who built barricades out of street furniture and umbrellas. Police responded with tear gas.
“I forgot my umbrella, so I had to buy this badminton racket … just for self protection,” said one young helmeted, masked man, who declined to give his name or age as he sped to the front line.
The protester added that many who marched did not want to stay late, saying Yuen Long was too dangerous for them after dark.
“Many people want to go but some will stay. There is a still of lot of anger. I’m not sure which way it will go. Nam Pin Wai (village) could be a target” said Kenneth, 27, retreating from one of the front lines.
Amid the retreat, Reuters witnesses saw a hard core group of activists with small metal bats, metal and wooden poles and slingshots moving against the tide.
Last Sunday, about 100 white-shirted men stormed the Yuen Long mass-transit station hours after protesters marched through central Hong Kong and defaced China’s Liaison Office – the main symbol of Beijing’s authority over the former British colony.
The men attacked black-clad protesters returning from Hong Kong island, passers-by, journalists and lawmakers with pipes and clubs, leaving 45 people injured. Some of the men later fled to Nam Pin Wai, a traditional walled village.
Police, considered slow by protesters to respond last Sunday, became a focus for Saturday’s march, adding to the tensions.
“They deliberately let the triads beat up protesters to get revenge on us … We’re here to teach them a lesson,” he said, as he shouted an obscenity at the police.
Police said on Sunday that officers had begun an operation to disperse crowds at 5pm.
“Violent clashes broke out at various locations in Yuen Long as some protesters removed fences from the kerbside and used mill barriers to block roads,” a statement said. “Some hurled bricks and hard objects at police officers and charged police cordon lines.”
The Yuen Long attack and the vandalism at the Liaison Office marked new fronts in a protest movement that has intensified over the last two months.
The protests, considered the most direct challenge to the authority of China’s President Xi Jinping, mushroomed yesterday as thousands of activists thronged the arrivals halls of Hong Kong international airport.
The protesters, initially demanding the scrapping of a bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland courts for trial, are now also seeking independent inquiries into police use of force, the resignation of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and full democratic reform – anathema to Beijing’s Communist Party leadership.
The crisis is exposing fissures in Lam’s administration, with police chiefs and rank-and-file officers enraged at an apology over last weekend’s attacks by her chief secretary yesterday, apparently made without consultation.
The official, Matthew Cheung, said the government would not shirk its responsibility “and the police’s handling fell short of residents’ expectations”.
Britain handed Hong Kong to China in 1997 amid guarantees that its core freedoms and autonomy, including the right to protest and an independent judiciary, would be protected under a “one country, two systems” formula.
Many fear those rights are under threat as Beijing’s reach extends into the city.
Activists told Reuters they feared today’s protest would turn violent, given anger among the protesters over last Sunday’s violence and a determination among some to challenge villagers they believe are close to triad groups in the area.
“We are hoping for a peaceful night,” said Neil, masked, in his mid-20s, standing next to a friend who was strapping on a hard hat.
Several banks in the area did not open on Saturday and many businesses were shuttered. – Reuters