by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Avery Ng/Facebook

ATTACKS BY individuals thought to be pro-Beijing gangsters on anti-extradition bill demonstrators took place late last night in Hong Kong, coming on the heels of a protest march called for by the Civil Human Rights Front which organizers stated drew 430,000. The march, which began in Victoria Park and started at 3:30 PM, takes place after seven weeks of mass protests against the extradition bill, with demonstrators called on to wear black at the demonstration. The Hong Kong government claims the extradition bill is permanently suspended, but it refuses to fully withdraw the bill.

Video of Gwyneth Ho live streaming while being attacked. Film credit: 400 blows/YouTube

Gangsters—who arrived wearing white in the hundreds and beat anyone wearing black and could be a demonstrator—are thought to be triad members. Videos show attacks on demonstrators took place in the Yuen Long MTR subway platform and on subway trains, even breaking through subway gates to try and attack demonstrators, and in the vicinity of the station.  Many of the attackers were carrying sticks and many did not wear masks, suggesting that attackers do not fear their identities being revealed.

Demonstrators, journalists, and lawmakers alike were attacked. Among those assaulted were a Stand News reporter, Gwyneth Ho, popularly known as “Stand News Sister” (立場姐姐) for her live stream reports—who continued to live stream for well over an hour even after being surrounded and assaulted by men with sticks—and Democratic Party politician Lam Cheuk-ting, who was photographed bleeding from the mouth. TV host and journalist Ryan Lau was also photographed covered with blood. On the other hand, pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho was photographed applauding the triad members.

Police were slow to respond to the attacks, arriving over an hour after the attacks began. Police were also filmed ignoring individuals that attempted to report the attacks in Yuen Long, instead shutting the doors of police stations. There are also reports of attacks on protesters in the Tin Shui Wai MTR. In response to the fact that police ignored demonstrators there attempting to report the attacks and closed the shutters of the police station, demonstrators surrounded the station.

That pro-Beijing gangsters have now begun coordinated attacks on demonstrators against the extradition bill has its precedents in past weeks.  With the spread of dozens of “Lennon Walls” across Hong Kong in the past two weeks, consisting of sticky notes with messages by demonstrators stuck to walls, there have also been incidents of pro-Beijing mobs tearing Lennon Walls down and attacking demonstrators in the vicinity.

Most notably, the “Lennon Tunnel” in Tai Po, arguably the most prominent of the Lennon Walls that have sprouted up in Hong Kong, was vandalized on Friday by around four hundred gangsters wearing white that arrived in six sixty-seat buses. This took place ahead of a planned rally in support of police on Saturday. Some assailants of Lennon Walls were later found to be retired police officers.

TV host and journalist Ryan Lau after being beaten bloody by pro-Beijing gangsters. Photo credit: Stand News/Facebook

Past years have seen incidents of pro-democracy activists or lawmakers assaulted by pro-Beijing gangsters, but for pro-Beijing gangsters to mobilize en masse to attack demonstrators is a less common occurrence. Such incidents, however, also took place during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, with it believed that pro-Beijing gangsters were hired by the Hong Kong government.

Hong Kong police have themselves become increasingly brutal to protesters in past weeks. While today’s demonstration was peaceful, it ended with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators who were occupying Connaught Road in Sheung Wan. There are reports of police threatening to shoot at demonstrators, although there are as yet no reports of anything apart from rubber bullets being fired.

In particular, the police use of tear gas on June 16th was widely outraging of the Hong Kong public, with police firing more tear gas canisters in one day than were used during the entire 2014 Umbrella Movement. However, it is likely that the level of violence which took place tonight matched or exceeded the level of police violence that took place on June 16th. The numerous acts of police violence today occur after police kettling and attacking demonstrators in the New Town Mall in Sha Tin last week provoked a great deal public outrage, suggesting that Hong Kong police fear little in terms of backlash at this point.

The designated endpoint of the demonstration today was originally the Southorn Playground in Wan Chai, but demonstrators proceeded past it to the Legislative Council complex, Court of Final Appeal, Western Police Station, and Liaison Office of the Chinese government. Balloons filled with paint were thrown at the emblem of the Liaison Office.  Police announced that they would clear demonstrators around 8 PM, with demonstrators occupying major roads including Harcourt Road and Connaught Road.

With regards to police violence against demonstrators and the blind eye they turned toward triad attacks on demonstrators, it should be kept in mind that police are those with the right to legitimate right to violence in society, in acting on behalf of the state. As such, because gangsters were acting as armed enforcers for the Hong Kong government in carrying out attacks on police—playing a role not so different from the police—that Hong Kong police would turn a blind eye to their actions not surprise.  In this light, given their own use of violence against generally peaceful demonstrators, a thin sliver of difference separates Hong Kong police from pro-Beijing mobs at this point.

Video of demonstrators being attacked while attempting to flee up an escalator. Film credit: 八鄉朱凱廸 Chu Hoi Dick/Facebook

In the meantime, it is anyone’s guess what will happen next in Hong Kong. One can venture a few guesses, however.

For one, with Hong Kong police carrying out violent acts against demonstrators, and pro-Beijing gangsters mobilized to attack protesters, one can expect continued violence against anti-extradition demonstrators. Nevertheless, the Hong Kong government will continue to insist that it is demonstrators against the extradition bill who are violent and out of control, in spite of all evidence otherwise. A statement by the Hong Kong government last night attempted to claim that violence occurred on both sides but is generally seen as more condemning of anti-extradition bill demonstrators.

As Saturday saw a rally in support of Hong Kong police which drew tens of thousands, with organizers claiming that over 300,000 attended, it is possible that this is an indication that pro-Beijing camp will seek to organize larger numbers of individuals to mobilize against anti-extradition demonstrators in the new future. Though it could be that some of the participants in Saturday’s rally are genuinely unaware of police actions against anti-extradition demonstrators, one notes that violence against anti-extradition protesters took place both before and after this rally, as observed in the defacing of the Tai Po Lennon Tunnel on Friday and last night’s attacks on demonstrators.

Moreover, it seems likely that one will see a wave of arrests of Hong Kong demonstrators in the near future. Hong Kong government claims that it is seeking 700 core organizers of demonstrations. Scores have been arrested already, with reports that over thirty activists have already fled Hong Kong for Taiwan and that another wave of is thirty considering whether to follow.

It is possible that some of these arrests will occur on trumped-up charges. On Saturday, ahead of yesterday’s rally, Hong Kong police claimed that powerful explosives were found in storage space belonging to the Hong Kong National Party, a localist group that the Hong Kong government is currently attempting to force the disbanding of. 

The Hong Kong National Party has disputed such claims, stating that it did not own these explosives. Others have pointed to the claim by police that this is Hong Kong’s “largest-ever” bomb plot as suspect, given bombings that took place during the leftist riots in 1967. To this extent, questions have been raised regarding images released by the police purporting to show the explosives, which some claiming that these images simply show water bottles. Others question police claims about the type of explosives that were found because police stated that they already detonated an amount of explosive sufficient to explode five airplanes on the rooftop of the storage space where they were found, but this does not seem to have caused much damage.

Footage of attacks by pro-Beijing gangsters by Democratic Party politician Lam Cheuk-ting. Photo credit: Lam Cheuk-ting/Facebook

The Hong Kong government still refuses to fully withdraw the extradition bill. Likewise, reports which have emerged in the past week stating that Beijing refused to accept the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam despite Lam offering to resign. As such, it generally appears to be the case that China hopes that the two-pronged strategy will suffice to put an end to protests: on the one hand, dragging out things to wear down protesters and, on the other, employing increasing levels of violence against extradition protesters from police and from pro-Beijing gangs. If such means prove insufficient, it is not impossible that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will be deployed, despite that the PLA garrison in Hong Kong has stated that it currently has no plans to mobilize.

In the face of violent responses, it is very likely that protesters will be pushed to new forms of action.  Observers of today’s demonstration have pointed out that the demands of protesters have become increasingly radical, with the return of calls for the realization of universal suffrage and not simply the withdrawal of the extradition law, and the increasingly widespread adoption of slogans used by Hong Kong independence activist and localist Edward Leung, currently serving a six-year jail term for his involvement in the 2016 Fishball Revolution. It remains to be seen how events continue to develop in Hong Kong.

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