HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police faced criticism on Monday for an apparent failure to protect anti-government protesters and passersby from attack by suspected gang members at a train station on the weekend.
The attack on Sunday came during a night of violence that opened new fronts in Hong Kong’s widening political crisis over an extradition bill, that could see people sent to China for trial.
Protesters had earlier on Sunday surrounded China’s main representative office in the city and defaced walls and signs and clashed with police.
The city’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, condemned the attack on China’s liaison office, saying it was a “challenge” to national sovereignty.
She condemned violent behavior of any kind and described as “shocking” the apparent attack by triad criminal gangs on ordinary citizens and protesters at the station, saying authorities would investigate fully.
Some politicians and activists have long linked Hong Kong’s shadowy network of triad criminal gangs to political intimidation and violence in recent years, sometimes against pro-democracy activists and critics of Beijing.
On Sunday night, men in white T-shirts, some armed with various types of clubs, flooded into the rural Yuen Long station, and stormed a train, attacking passengers with pipes, poles and other objects, according to video footage.
Witnesses, including Democratic lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting, said the men appeared to target black-shirted passengers who had been at an anti-government march.
The lawmaker Lam, who was wounded in the face and hospitalized, said the police ignored calls he made, pleading with to intervene and prevent bloodshed.
“They deliberately turned a blind eye to these attacks by triads on regular citizens,” he told Reuters, saying the floors of the station were streaked with blood.
“I won’t speculate on why they didn’t help immediately,” he said.
Forty-five people were injured in the violence at the station, with one in critical condition, according to hospital authorities.
A senior district police commander, Yau Nai-keung, said an initial police patrol had to wait reinforcements given a situation involving more than 100 people.
Yau told reporters the police had not made any arrests at the station or during a follow-up search of a nearby village, but were investigating.
Witnesses saw groups of men in white with poles and bamboo staves at the village but Yau said police saw no weapons when they arrived. Following some questioning of the men, they were allowed to leave, he told reporters.
“We can’t say you have a problem because you are dressed in white and we have to arrest you. We will treat them fairly no matter which camp they are in,” Yau said.
Police did not immediately respond to Reuters questions on the clash.
Hong Kong’s anti-triad police units in 2014 investigated the role of triad gangs attacking protesters during the pro-democracy demonstrations that shut down parts of the city for 79 days that year.
Alvin Yeung, a barrister and lawmaker with the pro-democracy Civic Party, said he was sure the men were from gangs.
“I hope that the police will not deceive themselves,” Yeung said. “It is a triad fight, and not a normal confrontation.”
POLICE FIRE RUBBER BULLETS
Hong Kong has been rocked by a series of sometimes violent protests for more than two months in its most serious crisis since Britain handed the Asian financial hub back to Chinese rule in 1997.
Under the terms of the handover, Hong Kong was allowed to retain extensive freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland under a “one country, two systems” formula, including an independent judiciary and the right to protest.
Many city residents fear that the proposed extradition law, which would allow people to be extradited to mainland China for trial, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party, would undermine Hong Kong’s judicial independence.
The city’s Beijing-backed government, responding the scale of the protests, postponed it and later said it was “dead” but the protesters are demanding its full withdrawal.
They are also demanding independent inquiries into the use of the police against protesters. Some are also demanding full democracy – anathema to Beijing’s party leadership.
On Sunday, police fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse activists after thousands had ringed the Liaison Office, the main Beijing representative office in the city.
The police said in statement that protesters hurled bricks, smoke grenades and petrol bombs during the unrest that came after hundreds of thousands marched through the city streets.
The Chinese government, including office director Wang Zhimin, condemned the turmoil, which included spray-painting and hurling eggs at walls and a national emblem, saying they challenged the “authority and dignity” of the Chinese government.
A representative of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said such acts tested Beijing’s bottom line.
“This kind of action openly challenges the central government’s authority … The nature was serious, and the impact vile. It absolutely cannot be tolerated.”
The unrest in Hong Kong marks the greatest popular challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
Reporting by Donny Kwok, James Pomfret, Felix Tam, Vimvam Tong, Greg Torode; Additional reporting by Jessie Pang; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel