HONG KONG (Reuters) – Several thousand protesters defied a police ban on Saturday to converge on a rural Hong Kong town where suspected triad gangsters attacked protesters and commuters at a train station last weekend.
Demonstrators march to protest against the Yuen Long attacks in Yuen Long, New Territories, Hong Kong, China July 27, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Police, widely criticized for failing to better protect the public from the triad raid in Yuen Long, refused to allow a planned march in the town on safety grounds.
But activists insisted they would push ahead and by 3.30 pm (0730 GMT) several thousand had gathered in sweltering heat, many chanting anti-police slogans such as “black police” and “know the law, break the law.”
Residents described a mounting police presence on Saturday morning, with force chiefs insisting they will still seek to keep order despite the ban. Extra fortifications have been placed around the local police station.
Police inside the station were filming the protesters as the march began.
Activists told Reuters they feared the protest could turn violent, given feelings of palpable anger among protesters over last Sunday’s events and a determination among some to challenge villagers they believe are close to long-standing triad groups in the area.
“The situation is escalating, and (Saturday) could be the start of a more violent period,” one told Reuters.
Local district councilors and rural hamlet chiefs earlier urged police to object to the march, citing grave concerns over public safety and fears symbolic village sites could be attacked.
Last Sunday, 100 white shirted men stormed the Yuen Long station in an attack that came hours after protesters marched through central Hong Kong and defaced China’s Liaison Office – the leading symbol of Beijing’s authority over the former British colony.
They attacked black-clad protesters returning from Hong Kong island, passers-by, journalists and lawmakers with pipes and clubs, leaving 45 people injured.
Reuters reported on Friday that a Liaison Office official had days earlier urged local village chiefs to drive away any activists from the town.
The Yuen Long attack and the encirclement of the Liaison Office marked new fronts in a protest movement that has intensified over the last two months.
“I come out as I want to express my dissatisfaction with police. What had happened last week was totally unacceptable,” said Cico Lau, 25, who grew up in Yuen Long and whose brother was beaten last Sunday despite not wearing black.
The protests, considered the most direct challenge to the authority of China’s President Xi Jinping, further mushroomed on Friday as thousands of activists thronged the arrivals halls of Hong Kong international airport.
Initially demanding the scrapping of a bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland courts for trial, marchers 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 protracted crisis is exposing fissures across Lam’s administration, with police chiefs and rank-and-file officers enraged at an apology over last weekend’s attacks by her Chief Secretary on Friday, apparently made without consultation.
Matthew Cheung said the government would not shirk its responsibility “and the police’s handling fell short of residents’ expectations”.
Britain handed Hong Kong over to Chinese rule 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.
Reporting By Donny Kwok, James Pomfret, Greg Torode, Clare Jim, and Marius Zaharia; Writing by Jennifer Hughes and Greg Torode; Editing by Richard Pullin