Tear gas, attacks and China’s warnings fuel Hong Kong anxiety

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Published: July 22, 2019 7:51:51 AM

The incidents underscored a gathering sense of political crisis in the former British colony, which has been wracked by weeks of mass demonstrations and unrest, including the ransacking of the local legislative chamber earlier this month.

Police fired smoke canisters to clear Hong Kong’s streets late Sunday after demonstrators defied government requests to cut short another large and otherwise peaceful march through the Asian financial hub. (Image: Bloomberg)Police fired smoke canisters to clear Hong Kong’s streets late Sunday after demonstrators defied government requests to cut short another large and otherwise peaceful march through the Asian financial hub. (Image: Bloomberg)

A night of protests and clashes in Hong Kong — including tear gas volleys and roving groups of masked men attacking protesters — prompted the strongest warnings yet from the Chinese government and fanned fears of escalating violence.

Police fired smoke canisters to clear Hong Kong’s streets late Sunday after demonstrators defied government requests to cut short another large and otherwise peaceful march through the Asian financial hub. Thousands of protesters had earlier surrounded China’s liaison office and defaced the national emblem, an act that Beijing’s representative said in a statement “seriously challenged” the central government’s authority.

Around the same time, groups of men wearing white shirts and surgical masks attacked metro passengers in the Yuen Long area, miles away near the border with the mainland metropolis of Shenzhen. While no arrests were made and it was unclear who the assailants were, the group targeted people dressed in black, the preferred color of demonstrators. An opposition lawmaker and several journalists were among dozens reported injured in the melee.

Traffic had resumed around China’s liaison office and in Sheung Wan without little sign of protesters. Street sweepers were cleaning up the sidewalk nearby with bricks ripped up. Graffiti on the wall of the Liaison office was covered up by black plastic and the national emblem had been replaced. Hong Kong government’s headquarters remained open Monday.

The incidents underscored a gathering sense of political crisis in the former British colony, which has been wracked by weeks of mass demonstrations and unrest, including the ransacking of the local legislative chamber earlier this month. What began as a largely leaderless effort to block legislation allowing extraditions to the mainland has morphed into a list of demands ranging from investigations into police tactics to a direct vote to replace the city’s China-appointed leader, Carrie Lam.

There are growing signs that the chaos was taking a toll on the local economy, with the Hong Kong Retail Management Association saying last week that “most members” reported a single-to-double-digit drop in average sales revenue between June and the first week of July. Private bankers in Singapore and elsewhere are being flooded with inquiries from Hong Kong investors worried about the crisis’ long-term effects, Bloomberg reported last week, citing bankers and wealth mangers.

The protest movement has proved resilient, persisting through repeat marches, extreme heat and Lam’s insistence that her controversial bill was “dead.” The organizer of the peaceful phase of Sunday’s protest, the Civil Human Rights Front, said 430,000 people turned out, a figure that would’ve been historically large before marches last month that drew more than 1 million. Police said 138,000 attended at the peak of Sunday’s rally.

Kingston Cheung, a 17-year-old student who’s taken part in the protests since they started June 9, said he marched Sunday to voice opposition to the government’s handling of previous protests. “The focus of the protests has been about the extradition bill, but we are also starting to see how the government and police have mishandled them,” he said. “The abuse of power by the police has added to the public’s anger.”

Still, the weekend also showed a growing effort to push back against the protest groups, with more than 100,000 attending a rally Saturday in support of the government and the police. The People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, warned in an editorial Monday that the protesters outside central government’s liaison office “trampled on” the city’s rule of law and “openly challenged the authority of the central government.”

The developments followed a report in the South China Morning Post newspaper last week that Chinese officials in charge of Hong Kong were working to present leaders with a comprehensive strategy to resolve the crisis. Authorities have ruled out any military intervention and saw the police as key to maintaining stability and exposing the intentions of protesters, the newspaper reported, citing people familiar with the discussions.

On Saturday, three men, between the ages of 25 and 27, were arrested in connection with the seizure of explosives, firebombs and other weapons in a industrial building in the Tsuen Wan district, according to a police statement.

Bernard Chan, a top adviser to Lam and convener of the city’s Executive Council, told Bloomberg in an email that there was little more the government could do to meet the demands of the protesters. “The government have already suspended the bill and chief executive has made very clear the bill is dead,” Chan said. “I don’t see how it will ever reintroduce to Legco under this term or any term in the future.”

Protesters decided to converge on the liaison office after police refused to allow the Civil Human Rights Front to continue its march beyond the Wan Chai area, preventing them from passing the city’s main government buildings, where the most violent clashes had earlier occurred. Demonstrators splintered into different groups, gathering outside the Legislative Council and central government offices to the west.

The protesters vandalized the exterior of the liaison office and read a list of demands before retreating to avoid a clash with advancing police. Riot officers pursued them to an area near the ferry terminal to Macau, where they unleashed tear gas to clear the area after some threw projectiles.

Far away from the main demonstrations, at least 45 people were hurt in fights with groups of men in the Yuen Long area who appeared to be targeting protesters returning from the rally, Radio Television Hong Kong reported, with one in critical condition and four seriously injured. Among those injured was Lam Cheuk-ting, a Democratic Party lawmaker, who posted pictures on his Facebook page of a cut on his lower lip.

Lam Cheuk-ting called the situation “extremely serious” and he was concerned the aggressors — some in their 20s and others as old as their 60s — could have ties to triad gangs. They also ignored his warnings that the police were arriving and continued to beat passengers with clubs.

The police condemned the violence in Yuen Long, as well as at the liaison office in a statement Monday. “The police will not tolerate any violent behavior,” it said, adding that it’s “now actively following up the two incidents in order to bring the offenders to justice.”

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