What you need to know
Police have declined Saturday's protest request in Yuen Long, but protesters came up with different excuses to justify the assembly.
By Laignee Barron and Abhishyant Kidangoor
HONG KONG — Police fired round after round of tear gas to disperse tens of thousands of demonstrators who defied an official ban and flooded Hong Kong’s residential town of Yuen Long Saturday, bringing their months-long pro-democracy protests to the doorstep of a divided suburb that was the site of bloody mob violence against activists early this week.
The ordinarily quiet cluster of villages near the China border became a flashpoint in the city’s spiraling crisis on July 21 after a mob of suspected gangsters attacked demonstrators, journalists, and passersby at a mass transit station in the most barbaric episode of protest-related violence since the unrest began in early June. Police were accused of turning a blind eye as they ran amok, a charge officials denied.
Dressed mainly in black shirts, yellow hard hats and face masks, the de facto uniform of the city’s protest movement, a massive crowd turned out to vent their anger over perceived police inaction during the assault, carried out in two waves of violence over the course of two hours. Organizers of Saturday’s march resorted to satire to evade the official ban; flyers advertised “full gear” activities such as shopping and playing Pokémon GO to justify the large assembly.
“We aren’t calling today a protest,” said Joanne, a 23-year-old professional event organizer who, like many of the protesters, declined to use her given name for fear of legal action. “Some people are here for good food, for sightseeing or for shopping,” she added. “We just all happen to be gathered, and we happen to be angry at the police, but we can’t call it a protest.”
Authorities began trying to clear the roads shortly after 5 p.m., following warnings to leave the area. Residents watched from their rooftops as protesters lobbed what appeared to be smoke bombs in chaotic exchanges with police. Local reports said a round of tear gas was shot in the direction of a home for the elderly, further angering protesters including lawmaker Roy Kwong, a key figure in the movement that has been widely described as “leaderless.” Crowds began leaving en masse just after 7 p.m., shouting “retreat!”
Police in riot gear had been positioned early along the route in anticipation of clashes. The protesters’ anger was palpable, assembling wherever they saw police lines, yelling, calling them names and showing them the middle finger. Some were seen spray-painting graffiti on the side of a besieged police van. A “Yuen Long Manifesto” of unknown origin circulated online, accusing police of colluding with the attackers, labeling them “a band of notorious ruffians” and demanding a public apology.
In the chaos that ensued on July 21, dozens of men wearing white shirts and armed mostly with sticks appeared to target protesters returning from a march in the city center, injuring at least 45 people including a lawmaker and several local reporters. The assailants are believed to be associated with triads, organized criminal gangs that have long been accused of acting as paid, extra-legal enforcers of social order. At least 12 men have reportedly been arrested, some with connections to triad groups.
“We are quite angry about what happened on July 21, it was a riot, they hit and beat any person including children, women, and even press,” says Lau, a 50-year-old engineer from Hong Kong’s northern New Territories. He believes the Chinese Communist Party was linked to the attack. “But the underlying problem is the interference from the Chinese government,” he said, “they invited these village gangsters in.”
Reuters reported Friday that an official from China’s liaison office, local district director Li Jiyi, addressed a banquet in the area more than a week prior and urged locals to chase away protesters if they came “to cause trouble.” One resident told TIME that messages circulated on WhatsApp Sunday evening had riled up villagers to defend the town, and that groups of men soon began gathering at several meeting points before the assault.
Over the past eight weeks, organizers say millions have marched in a series of demonstrations against a now-suspended bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China. The city’s embattled leader Carrie Lam declared the bill “dead” but refuses to officially withdraw it, and the movement has snowballed into calls for more democratic freedoms as anger toward her Beijing-backed government spilled out into the open and united large swaths of society.
Over the course of the unrest, protesters have broadened their demands to include full withdrawal of the bill, a retraction of the government’s designation of demonstrations as “riots,” amnesty for arrested activists, establishment of an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality, and universal suffrage as promised under the city’s charter, known as the Basic Law.
The former British colony was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 under an agreement called “one country, two systems,” designed to guarantee its autonomy for 50 years. But Beijing’s critics say the city’s freedoms are eroding, and recent years have seen mass demonstrations against attempts to enact legislation that would give China more control over national security, education and electoral processes.
© 2019 Time Inc. All rights reserved. Republished from time.com and published with permission of Time Inc. Reproduction in any manner in any language in whole or in part without prior written permission is prohibited.
TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)
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