Hong Kong Braces for More Unrest After Saturday’s Clashes
(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong police and protesters faced off for the eighth straight weekend as the China-backed government struggles to quell discontent over Beijing’s increasing control over the financial hub.
Thousands of protesters descended Saturday on the northern suburb of Yuen Long near the Chinese border to condemn a mob attack last weekend that shocked the city, marking a violent turning point in the historic protest movement.
Police on Saturday used batons, tear gas and pepper spray on people throwing stones and wielding metal rods. The officers shielded a village, preventing a possible confrontation between demonstrators and residents who protesters blamed for last week’s attacks.
Nine people were hurt, Hong Kong’s RTHK reported, while police said four officers were injured. Eleven men between the ages of 18 and 68 were arrested for offences including unlawful assembly, possession of an offensive weapon and assaulting a police officer, according to a police statement. Max Chung, the organizer of the march, was arrested for inciting others to participate in an unlawful assembly, the city’s Now TV reported on Sunday.
Demonstrators are set to hit the streets again Sunday near the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong. Protesters vandalized the building last week, drawing stern warnings from Beijing and sparking fears that China’s military would be called in to restore order.
The government in a statement expressed “deep regret” over the march in Yuen Long, which went ahead despite the lack of a permit, and condemned “radical protesters” who charged police cordons, disrupting public peace and challenging the law.
Police early Sunday said the protesters disregarded the personal safety of residents and the public. The demonstrators used metal poles and self-made shields to attack officers and charge the cordon line -- they even removed fences from roads to form road blocks, according to a police statement.
The former British colony’s government is currently reeling from its biggest political crisis since the return to Chinese rule in 1997. The movement to oppose a bill allowing extraditions to the mainland has expanded to include calls for genuine universal suffrage, an inquiry into excessive force by police and demands for Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s resignation.
“We all disagree with Carrie Lam and the government,” Wini L., a retired civil servant employee who declined to give her full name, said on Saturday. “That’s why we come out every week. We’ll never stop.”
The outbursts of violence have put pressure on Chinese President Xi Jinping to find a solution. Beijing has so far backed Lam’s government, in part to avoid setting a precedent in which street protests lead to political change. His government has also accused the U.S. of supporting the demonstrations, a charge the Trump administration has denied. In a Bloomberg Television interview Thursday, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo urged China to “do the right thing.”
With the unrest showing no signs of ending, the city’s reputation among investors as a stable environment for business has taken a hit. Local retailers are bracing for poor sales figures as demonstrations keep tourists out of shops and ordinary residents seek to avoid major malls that have been targeted.
“We haven’t seen anything improved by the government,” Cat Cheung, a 20-year-old student who spoke through his gas mask, said on Saturday after retreating from the front lines. “That’s why we have to keep coming out.”
The latest demonstration came a day after a sit-in at Hong Kong’s international airport, which underscored the economic risk of continued unrest. It was the first of three days of protests against the city’s government.
Organizers said 15,000 people took part in the airport rally, while police put the number at 4,000 at its peak. About 288,000 people took part in Saturday’s protest, organizer Max Chung told reporters. Police, citing the lack of a permit, wouldn’t estimate the size of the crowd.
Ahead of the protest Saturday, fears grew that large groups of black-shirted activists would draw out the pro-establishment mob that had beaten the protesters with sticks on July 21. Police had said some of the assailants arrested later had links to the city’s notorious organized crime syndicates, or triads, and denied a permit to the rally on Saturday due to fear of renewed clashes.
“The violence in Yuen Long last week shocked Hong Kong and persuaded many people into supporting and joining the protest movement,” opposition lawmaker Raymond Chan said as protesters in yellow hard hats marched past him in Yuen Long on Saturday afternoon. “Even though it’s a little bit dangerous, you see so many people have come out.”
Demonstrators on Saturday targeted the police as well as a village where the mob was believed to have originated. As the rally began in the afternoon, a large crowd of protesters surrounded a police station in the village and pressed in toward the entrance, chanting “bad cops.”
“The police aren’t even human,” said Bobo Tsang, who had rolled a flyer into a makeshift megaphone so she could yell at cops filming the rally from the top of a building in the police station compound. “I wouldn’t have come out if they didn’t behave so poorly.”
Many feared violence but some of the more radical members of the large crowd carried their usual hard hats, gas masks and goggles in preparation for a clash with police.
Police moved to clear the area late Saturday after some demonstrators packed into the narrow streets hurled stones at officers and vandalized a law-enforcement van with personnel inside. About 10 p.m. local time, a few hundred hardcore activists continued to engage in running street battles with officers, who pursued them inside one of the subway stations.
“During the dispersal, some protesters hurled bricks, threw glass bottles containing suspected corrosive fluid as well as smoke-producing material at police officers and targeted a strong laser beam at them,” police said in the statement. Police had to use appropriate force, it said.
Police used smoke, sponge bullets and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds, Yolanda Yu, senior superintendent at the Police Public Relations Branch, said early Sunday.
Asked whether indiscriminate force was used, she said protesters had hurled fire extinguishers at officers on a bridge near the station, and in an attempt to gain control, police entered the station.
“I just wanted to show the police that we can’t let gangsters rule Yuen Long,” said Neil Li, a 23-year-old student at the protest. “Hong Kong people need to protect our place. We can’t let the police and the gangsters attack our people.”
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