A police badge is seen spray-painted outside a police station in Hong Kong on July 21, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/ Vernon Yuen

In a rare move, Hong Kong police have officially banned a protest scheduled to be held on Saturday (July 27) in the northwestern town of Yuen Long, where earlier this week a marauding gang with alleged links to triad criminal groups indiscriminately attacked pro-democracy protesters and others at a metro station.

Citing a risk of violence and challenge to public order, Anthony Tsang, the acting regional police commander for the New Territories North, said there is a “fairly high chance for both sides to clash” if the demonstration goes ahead.

Tsang said that the march’s planned route was too densely populated and narrow for a huge number of demonstrators, adding that it would end near indigenous villages where many of the triad-linked attackers are believed to reside.

Calls for aggressive retaliation against the criminal mob have also cropped up online, he said, raising fears that the border town could become the next flashpoint in Hong Kong’s escalating weeks-long political crisis.

Thousands are expected to defy police orders and march on Yuen Long tomorrow despite its official designation as an “unlawful assembly.” If the march proceeds, it would mark the eighth straight weekend of demonstrations that, while largely peaceful, have increasingly descended into violence as protesters adopt more radical tactics.

A protester is seen spray painting a plague outside China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong on July 21, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Vernon Yuen

“We do not want any more fights or bloodshed. What we would like to tell people by having a rally at Yuen Long is that Yuen Long belongs to the people of Hong Kong and not the triad society,” pro-democracy lawmaker Kenneth Leung told Asia Times. “We don’t want a district to be sealed off because it is controlled by the triads. It’s absurd.”

More than 100 unidentified men dressed in white shirts were involved in two separate attacks on July 21 targeting anyone who was wearing black or other identifiers of the protest movement. Wielding iron bars, bamboo sticks and Chinese national flags, they viciously beat demonstrators as they returned home from that night’s protest.

Police were glaringly absent when the violence erupted, which lead to the hospitalization and injury of at least 45 people including journalists and passers-by. Hong Kong’s police commissioner admitted that law enforcement officers had arrived to the scene some 35 minutes after receiving the first report of attacks.

The lapse in response, according to police, was due to overstretched manpower as officers were deployed across Hong Kong Island to deal with various mass protests.

Speculation has been rife, however, that law enforcement had intentionally turned a blind eye to the thugs, or even colluded with them, allegations strongly denied by authorities.

Questions continue to be raised, though, about the extent of the police’s foreknowledge of the violent episode.

“Myself and my colleagues received information about the possibility of a very violent attack in that area three to four days before the incident,” claimed Leung, adding that Yuen Long district police “have a very big duty to explain why didn’t they accept that information. Those tip-offs were widely circulated.”

Alleged triad members attack demonstrators at a train station in Hong Kong, July 21, 2019. Photo: Facebook

Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong, said it was “rather unbelievable” for police to deny foreknowledge of the mob violence.

“Ordinary Hong Kong people came across messages over the internet on Sunday, at least from afternoon onwards, that triads were gathered in Yuen Long area, that they were dressed in white and ready to attack the protesters,” he told Asia Times.

“People were circulating this message and saying they should stay at home and avoid going out on the streets in Yuen Long, and so on. The messages were loud and clear,” Cheng said, noting that Hong Kong police even have a specific bureau tasked with investigating and targeting activities and crimes related to triad groups.

Organized crime societies or triads have a long history in the area that can be traced back to 19th-century Chinese fraternal organizations. Some analysts claim that the shadowy groups find employment as hired muscle tasked with targeting Beijing’s opponents, though a clear chain of evidence to substantiate such a link in the latest instance has not surfaced.

A spokesman for Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, which was vandalized with graffiti and ink on the same night of the Yuen Long attacks, today strongly condemned “malicious rumors” that the Chinese government was behind the bloody episode, adding that the office has “firmly opposed and reprimanded any form of violent act.”

The denial follows an ominous remark from China’s Defense Ministry earlier this week hinting that Beijing was prepared to use military force in the semiautonomous city if requested by its government, a pronouncement that sent jitters through the business community and raised concerns that Beijing’s patience may be waning.

“The situation can be contained, there is no need to mobilize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA),” believes Cheng, who said any move to do so would be “very costly” to Beijing.

PLA troops hold a drill in Hong Kong, June 26, 2019. Photo: 81.cn

“It would be a loss of face on the part of Beijing and an admission of failure, a failure of the ‘one country, two systems’ model. It would hurt Hong Kong’s business environment and attraction as an international financial center,” he said. “I think these are scare tactics, mainly.”

Leung shared similar views and agreed that the situation is still well within authorities’ control. “I cannot see an escalation in the use of force on either side – except from the triads,” he remarked.

“We need to deal with the triads and the alleged collusion and inaction of the police. I would classify [their actions] as a terrorist attack on civilians, despite their political beliefs, allegiance, sex or age. The reason, of course, is to try and silence the opposition voice.”

Authorities have so far arrested six men, aged 24 to 54, for unlawful assembly in connection with the rampage in Yuen Long, some of whom reportedly have triad backgrounds.

Members of notorious triad societies such as 14K and Wo Shing Wo are believed to have taken part in the violence. Police have yet to establish the weapon-wielding mob’s motive.

“There should at least 50,000 people marching in the streets of Yuen Long tomorrow [July 26] afternoon. A lot of these people would go home afterwards by around 6 pm, but then there will be hundreds, perhaps two or three thousand radical young people, who will stay behind to confront the police,” predicted Cheng.

Protesters smash glass doors of the Hong Kong parliament on July 1, the 22nd anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain to China. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

“It is rather likely that the same pattern witnessed over the past two months may reoccur on Saturday in Yuen Long,” he said, in reference to violent altercations that have followed recent peaceful mass rallies.

“It was unreasonable for the police to stop the protests in the first place,” Cheng believes. “We all know people will still go. Why would they issue an order that people will not comply with?”

Organizers of Saturday’s rally in Yuen Long have reportedly settled on an ironic way of circumventing the police ban. Under the city’s law regulating public assembly, known as the Public Order Ordinance, gatherings for the purpose of a funeral or religious and cultural discussion do not require permission from authorities.

At least one widely-shared image among protest groups has rebranded the gathering as a “memorial” for former Chinese Premier Li Peng, who passed away earlier this week at age 90 following an unspecified illness.

The former top official is regarded as a key architect of the PLA’s bloody crackdown on mass pro-democracy protests in Beijing on June 4, 1989, a massacre Hong Kong mournfully commemorates every year.

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