With the city reeling from a night of staggering violence following a major protest yesterday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and other top officials found themselves on the back foot at a heated press conference this afternoon as they sought to defend their response to a crowd of pro-Beijing thugs’ vicious attack on commuters at Yuen Long MTR last night.
Lam appeared before the press today seemingly prepared to offer a condemnation of violence on both the part of unruly anti-government protesters in Sheung Wan, as well as those involved in the attacks at Yuen Long, saying at one point that “violence will only breed more violence.” However, she, Security Secretary John Lee, and Police Commissioner Stephen Lo soon found themselves faced with a barrage of palpably angry questions from the city’s press corps, multiple members of which were injured in the clashes at Yuen Long last night.
“In Central and Sheung Wan there were a series of violent incidents,” Lam said in her prepared remarks. “The Hong Kong SAR government condemns the violence, like targeting the [central government’s] liaison office building and defacing the national emblem; we will investigate it.”
“Hong Kong is a society with rule of law, and we do not tolerate violence,” she continued. “Yesterday in Yuen Long, the assailants ignored the law and rules, and hurt the citizens and railway passengers. We would not tolerate such behavior, and have demanded the police investigate in the case.”
Lee, meanwhile, also condemned the clashes between protesters and police in Sheung Wan.
“Protesters are taking the violence to the next level, from using umbrellas and wooden boards to now using toxic corrosive substances, gas bombs,” he said. “The situation is worrying, and we should be aware that there is a group of protesters with a tendency to use violence.”
Lo, for his part, also condemned the clashes between police and protesters, noting that “protesters illegally kept going beyond the finishing point” and “threw bricks, glass bottles, [and] smoke bombs at the police.” He also pledged to “investigate and arrest [suspects over] the violence in Yuen Long as soon as possible.”
Thousands of participants in a major peaceful rally on Hong Kong Island ignored the orders of police — and the wishes of the march’s organizers — when they blew through the protest’s officially sanctioned endpoint in Wan Chai yesterday evening. The crowds went on to occupy Harcourt Road at government headquarters, then proceeded to Sai Wan, where they vandalized Beijing’s liaison office, the central government’s beachhead in the SAR.
The night ended with clashes between protesters and police — an increasingly routine occurrence — as tear gas failed to disperse crowds that had retreated from the liaison office back to Sheung Wan, with protesters setting fires and pelting officers with bricks, and police responding with rubber bullets, RTHK reports.
Meanwhile, in the New Territories, far from the city’s center, a group of white-clad thugs viciously attacked protesters and journalists — as well as unwitting commuters — with rods and bamboo canes as they arrived at the Yuen Long MTR station.
Images circulating on a pro-Beijing Facebook page show people in white gathering in Yuen Long yesterday afternoon, along with banners that read “Protect Yuen Long’s Peace” alongside bamboo canes of the sort used in the assault.
Police were notably absent at the Yuen Long clashes, only showing up after the assailants had dispersed and making no arrests, despite some images appearing to show riot police and armed perpetrators in close proximity. The response, and presently unverified accusations (vehemently denied by Lo today) that police colluded with triads to allow the violent attacks, has sent public anger soaring in the already-tense city.
Lam was asked at one point to account for a government statement issued last night that appeared to offer a “mild description” of the events at Yuen Long, saying that at the time of the statement, her office was “not in possession of [facts regarding] all the actual situation on the ground.”
Lo, meanwhile, was pressed to answer for police officer’s failure to respond in a timely fashion, with officers taking a full 35 minutes to arrive at the scene, and shutting the doors of a nearby station where many victims had gone to file complaints.
“Our manpower is stretched because every time there is a major event which may lead to violent confrontation, we have to redeploy some of my manpower from various districts to the Hong Kong Island so that I can ensure sufficient manpower,” he said of the delay.
Adding that he didn’t want to see the events of Yuen Long repeated, Lo pledged to “review our manpower deployment and do our best to ensure the public order and public safety of every district in Hong Kong.”
He also blamed the large crowd at the station for the decision to shut its doors, and attributed widespread reports of dropped 999 calls to lines being jammed, not police negligence.
However, the press conference became increasingly tense as weeks of mounting frustrations with the government’s pro forma responses to the long-running protest movement appeared to boil over.
One reporter pointedly asked Lo, “How can citizens trust the police?” citing claims some 999 callers were told “if you’re scared don’t go out.”
Lo simply said he would look into it.
Reporters could also be heard yelling at Lam, “A lot of people couldn’t sleep last night,” and “Can you answer like a human being?”
“There was blood; didn’t you see it?” one called out.
After some final remarks and a brief exchange of nervous glances, Lam and the other officials ultimately beat an unceremonious retreat as reporters continued to yell after them.
In a sign of the deepening social divisions over the anti-extradition movement, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy and pro-Beijing camps today mostly chose to focus on whichever clash better suited their preferred narratives — police misconduct for the pro-dems, and protesters run amok for the the establishment.
In a press conference today, pro-democracy lawmakers lambasted the police response to the violence at Yuen Long, with pro-dem lawmaker Tanya Chan saying she had called police around 10pm and was told they were already in the area, though the violence continued unabated.
“Where were they?” she asked. “Has Yuen Long become independent so the police don’t have to care?”
The pro-Beijing camp, meanwhile, in its own press conference, chose to focus on the unrest at the liaison office and in Sheung Wan.
“Spraying paint on the liaison office is an act of provoking a country, and is insult against a country, which should be condemned,” pro-Beijing lawmaker Wong Kwok-kin said. “Destroying the national symbol would turn Hong Kong into the enemy of the People’s Republic of China.”
High-ranking pro-Beijing pol Regina Ip accused the “rioters” at the liaison office of “trampling national dignity,” while also condemning the violence in Yuen Long.
Representatives of the central government also lashed out over the vandalism.
“These [acts] have seriously damaged Hong Kong’s highly cherished rule of law spirit… and seriously damaged the feelings of all Chinese people including seven million Hong Kong compatriots,” the liaison office’s head, Wang Zhimin, told reporters today.
State run news service Xinhua quoted an unnamed representative of the office as saying the protest “blatantly challenged the authority of the central government,” and that such actions were “absolutely intolerable.”
Additional reporting by AFP.