Lily Kuo and Verna Yu – The Guardian July 22, 2019
Pro-democracy activists and lawmakers in Hong Kong have accused the police of standing by as men dressed in white attacked commuters late on Sunday, leaving 45 hospitalised, including one who is critically injured.
Video footage from Hong Kong media showed dozens of men, most in masks, storming a subway station, chasing passengers and beating them with rods. Among those hurt in the attack, in Yuen Long in Hong Kong’s New territories, were demonstrators returning from a large anti-government rally, as well as a pregnant woman and a woman holding an infant, according to witnesses.
Ambulance was not enough for so many injured. I did saw the pregnant women who fainted but at once she nearly got assualted again. There was woman holding infant got assaulted too. Weirdest thing is the "leader" of triad tried to help! #antiELAB #ExtraditionBill #HongKongProtest
— Galileo Cheng (@galileocheng) July 21, 2019
The footage emerged after an anti-government march by hundreds of thousands of people on Sunday that descended into chaos as police and protesters fought running battles, with riot police firing teargas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters.
A woman sobbed while recounting what happened during the Yuen Long attack, telling one witness in audio circulated online: “They beat people in the carriage indiscriminately whoever they were, even people who were returning home from work … Some men were shielding us. They didn’t fight back otherwise we would have been beaten even worse. They beat even women and children.”
Video filmed inside the train showed passengers screaming and crying as they attempted to shield themselves with umbrellas when men attacked people in the carriage. The men used metal and wooden rods, as well as canes and brooms to hit commuters.
Footage showed a young man dressed in black being punched and kneed in the stomach by several men. A female journalist was beaten while filming the attack. Photos showed commuters bleeding and smears of blood on the station ground.
When police arrived at the station after 11pm, the assailants had left and angry protesters demanded to know why they had taken so long to get there. Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority said 45 people between the ages of 18 and 64, were injured in the attack, including one man who was in critical condition. Four men and one woman were in a serious condition.
On Monday morning, activists roundly criticised the police. A lawmaker from the opposition Democracy party said his party was investigating the potential involvement of organised crime.
“Is Hong Kong now allowing triads to do what they want, beating up people on the street with weapons?” Democratic party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting, who was among the injured, asked reporters.
Civil Human Rights Front, the organiser behind Sunday’s march said: “While the police were unnecessarily teargassing protesters … on the other side in Yuen Long there were real thugs chasing and beating passersby, journalists and lawmakers. This is outrageous.”
Pro-democracy lawmaker Ray Chan tweeted: “Hong Kong has 1 of the world’s highest cop to population ratio. Where were @hkpoliceforce?”
Snippet of a live broadcast from lawmaker Lam Cheuk ting, showing self-professed pro-Gov't mobsters attacking passengers in train cars at #MTR #YuenLong Stn. #HongKong has 1 of the world's highest cop to population ratio. Where were @hkpoliceforce? Lam was injured as shown live. pic.twitter.com/Aq5JmJlf5u
— Ray Chan (@ray_slowbeat) July 21, 2019
Activists believe thugs have been hired before in previous pro-democracy protests in 2014, possibly from southern China where local authorities have been known to hire men to intimidate residents or petitioners.
A widely circulated video showed pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho, who lives in Yuen Long, shaking hands with men in white and giving them a thumbs up. In response to accusations Ho hired the men to go after protesters, Ho said in a press briefing on Monday that he had nothing to do with the attack.
“My appearance in Yuen Long was normal. Many of my voters also live in Yuen Long. Their white-clad action was not a secret. What happened last night had nothing to do with me. I didn’t join any planning, nor was I any part of any group.”
Asked why he did not call the police, Ho said: “They appeared to be normal residents, just like the protesters in your eyes.”
The police, who entered a village near the station in Yuen Long where groups of men in white had gathered in the early hours of Monday, said they had seen no weapons and made no arrest because they “could not be sure of who was involved.”
“Even those dressed in white, that doesn’t mean they are involved. We will handle each case fairly, no matter their political camp,” said Yau Nai-keung, assistant commander of Yuen Long district.
The Hong Kong government condemned the violence in a statement, confirming that “some people” had attacked commuters on the station platform and within train compartments. “It led to confrontations and injuries. The [government] strongly condemns any violence and will seriously take enforcement actions.”
Sunday’s violence marks the latest unrest in Hong Kong, where mass protests have been held for seven consecutive weeks, often resulting in clashes.
The protests, which began over a controversial extradition bill that would allow suspects in Hong Kong, have take on wider demands, including an investigation into police behaviour. Observers believe the violence in Yuen Long and the police’s response is likely to be the focus of another protest.
On Sunday, thousands of protesters attending a peaceful anti-government march defied the police-sanctioned route and pushed westwards to Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong, where they graffitied the building’s walls, threw eggs at it, and defaced the emblem of the People’s Republic of China.
Speaking outside the building on Monday, Wang Zhimin, director of Beijing’s liaison office, said: “We resolutely condemn the illegal mob who seriously damaged the precious spirit of rule of law in Hong Kong, undermined the fundamental interests of the people, and seriously hurt the feelings of the entire Chinese people.”
Chinese state media on Monday also slammed the protests on Sunday, calling the attack on the liaison office a “blatant challenge to the central government”, calling such violent acts evidence of the “mobs and the forces behind them.”
The demonstrations challenge Beijing’s authority over the former British colony, returned to Chinese control in 1997. Under the one country, two systems framework, Hong Kong is meant to maintain a high degree of autonomy from the mainland, with an independent judiciary and a free press. But critics say they have witnessed Hong Kong’s freedoms quickly disappearing.
Among protesters’ demands are democratic reforms that would give Hong Kongers the ability to directly elect their leaders. Protest groups have vowed to continue until their demands are met.
“I don’t see this ending. It looks like it’s just going to escalate … it’s almost becoming ungovernable,” said Victoria Hui, a political scientist from Hong Kong, now at Notre Dame University.