The Hong Kong protests have moved into an ugly phase after more than 100 armed men – suspected to be triad gang members – launched a brutal attack on a pro-democracy mob in a subway station that left dozens injured.
At least 45 people were sent to hospital, including one in a critical condition and five others seriously injured, after the vicious attack at Yuen Long MTR Station in the New Territories on Sunday night.
Members of the group, who wore white t-shirts and facemasks, were seen carrying sticks, steel poles and rattan canes and targeted people in black, apparently believing them to be people opposed to the city government’s extradition bill who attended a rally on Hong Kong Island earlier in the day.
The men in white attacked passengers on trains, plus reporters and civilians, as well as others from the concourse to the platform. The wild melee prevented the train from leaving. No police officer was seen during the attack or for a substantial period after.
Critics later rounded on the city’s embattled police, accusing officers of taking more than an hour to reach the station despite frantic calls from those under attack, and then failing to arrest the armed assailants who stayed in the streets around the station into Monday morning. Some men in white shirts were later filmed leaving the scene in cars with Chinese mainland number plates.
During the subway melee, some men used umbrellas to defend themselves, while others fought back so that the attackers in white were kept apart from passengers, including elderly people and children standing behind them.
One of the victims was the Democratic lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting.
One video showed a female reporter from The Stand News chased by the men in white and being attacked, while a male reporter was attacked by six to seven men elsewhere and suffered a facial injury.
A further video, below, showed a pregnant woman lying on the ground while ambulance staff helped her. The woman’s husband was understood to have been attacked by the men in white and also injured.
The attack was said to have lasted around 30 minutes. People were visibly shaken after the men in white left, some with bloodied faces and heads, while they waited for police and ambulance men to come.
Videos of the violence were posted on social media shortly after, provoking outrage across Hong Kong. But some of the clips showed police just walking past and doing nothing when the men in white left the MTR station.
People also complained that they couldn’t get through on the 999 emergency hotlines, or that their calls were forwarded to a voice machine. It took officers a long time to respond to the violence – amid suspicion that the attack may have been organized or sanctioned – and they were met with an angry crowd when they did arrive.
The MTR Corporation announced in a statement that it had called the police at 10.45pm.
Around a dozen police eventually appeared and they faced an angry crowd before leaving. Meanwhile, trains had already stopped serving Yuen Long. The station closed early, before midnight, at the request of the police.
Meanwhile, fighting erupted again and several men in white t-shirts later forced open the shutters of the station and went back inside to attack more people.
By around 1.30am, riot police were out in force in Yuen Long. Men in white t-shirts were seen gathering around Nam Pin Wai, a village not far from the station. Many of them wore masks and carrying what appeared to be metal bars. Riot police entered the village at 3am for a search, but no one was arrested.
Anger at police response
Some angry residents went to Yuen Long Police Station to lodge complaints but the gate was closed and they did not respond.
Superintendent Yau Nai-keung, the police assistant commander for Yuen Long, spoke at a brief media session early on Monday morning about “a dispute between two groups of people” and that officers believed the violence had started over different political views.
Yau said the police received a report at 10.45pm and that two police arrived seven minutes later but left after making an assessment and waiting for support. Other police arrived at the station at 11.2opm, 35 minutes after the bloodshed.
Yau also said no arrests were made in Nam Pin Wai village because when plainclothes officers arrived, no one was found holding any weapons.
But media footage had shown masked men in the village brandishing what appeared to be metals rods while scores of riot police stood nearby.
When reporters asked why some people were allowed to go past the police cordon and leave the village, Yau said this was because officers could not be sure these people had been involved in the assaults.
“Even those dressed in white, that doesn’t mean they are involved in the conflict. We will handle each case fairly – no matter the political camp they belong to,” he said.
Yau said the police strongly condemned the violence and appealed to witnesses to provide information to the force.
Govt and Beijing condemn violence
Later, city chief Carrie Lam and the Hong Kong government condemned violence in Sheung Wan and Yuen Long, plus protesters storming the Hong Kong Liaison Office after the rally, which led to riot police firing tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd.
Lam said: “Violence is not a solution to any problem. Violence will only breed more violence”. She said the whole of Hong Kong and its people would suffer as a result of the loss of law and order.
Asked about a video showing riot police chatting with suspected gangsters in Yuen Long before letting them go, which suggested that the government or police were in cahoots with triad gangs, Lam and the police chief both denied any collusion.
Lam said the accusation had no grounds and people only wanted to weaken the administration’s governance, while the police chief also said they had irreconcilable differents with triad organizations.
Beijing, meanwhile, reacted furiously on Monday to anti-government protesters vandalizing the walls of its representative’s office in Hong Kong and defacing the national emblem, branding their actions “absolutely intolerable”.
“Actions by some radical demonstrators have affected the bottom line of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, and that is absolutely intolerable,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in Beijing, referring to the former British colony’s special status under the terms of its 1997 handover to China.
However, protesters suspect the mainland and its supporters in Hong Kong are now playing a two-faced game. Pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho Kwan-yiu, who organized a rally to support the government and police, was seen giving a thumbs up to men in white and shaking hands with some of them on a Yuen Long street on Sunday, a viral video showed on social media.
Some of the men in white praised Ho, claiming he was a hero and he had helped city Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor a lot.
Yuen Long lies in the New Territories near the Chinese border where the criminal gangs and staunchly pro-Beijing rural committees remain influential. Similar assaults by pro-government vigilantes against demonstrators during the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” protests were blamed on triads.
Hong Kong has been plunged into its worst crisis in recent history by weeks of marches and sporadic violent confrontations between police and pockets of hardcore protesters. The initial protests were lit by a now-suspended bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, but they have since evolved into a wider movement calling for democratic reforms, universal suffrage and a halt to sliding freedoms in the semi-autonomous territory.
The city’s parliament was trashed by protesters earlier this month, as Beijing’s authority faces its most serious challenge since Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997.
Beyond agreeing to suspend the extradition bill, there have been few other concessions and fears are rising that Beijing’s patience is running out. On Monday, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece the People’s Daily declared in a front-page article that radical protests have “insulted the country and the nation”.
“These (acts)… have seriously damaged the feelings of all Chinese people including seven million Hong Kong compatriots,” Wang Zhimin, China’s top envoy to the city, told reporters. He called on authorities to pursue the “rioters”.
Genuine elections needed: Taiwan
However, Taiwan’s view was far more sympathetic. Its Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu, said in a tweet that “genuine” democratic elections should be held in Hong Kong – a core demand of the protesters.
“It’s sad to see the rule of law eroding and the divide between the people and the government widening in Hong Kong,” Wu said as he accompanied President Tsai Ing-wen on a stopover in Denver on their way back from a visit to diplomatic allies in the Caribbean.
Last week, Tsai’s government said it would provide assistance to Hong Kong people seeking sanctuary after local media reported dozens of activists involved in an unprecedented storming of the city’s parliament had fled to the island.
With reporting by AFP