One of the most violent clashes yet between protesters and riot police in Hong Kong on Sunday night left two in critical condition and dozens in police custody after authorities trapped protesters attempting to go home in a shopping mall and attacked them with pepper spray.
Police told media outlets that they arrested at least 40 people and the local hospital in Sha Tin, a city within the Hong Kong autonomous region, took in 22 people. Among the 22, police said ten were police officers, one who lost a finger after a protester bit it off. Protest leaders identified at least two of their injured – Calvin Chu and William Liu – stating that police surrounded and beat them brutally as they were trying to take the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) home at the end of the protest. Two of the injured are believed to be in critical condition and four in serious condition; authorities did not specify if they were police officers or protesters.
The violence occurred after the culmination of the first anti-China protest in Sha Tin, north of Hong Kong island, where most of the protests against the central government in the past month have occurred. The South China Morning Post reports that protesters told media 115,000 people attended the protest Sunday. While an outgrowth of the same pro-democracy movement that triggered past protests, this one focused on demanding that the government act to curb perceived economic abuses by Chinese traders, who enter Hong Kong to buy products not available in Communist Party-controlled territories and sell them in China for a profit. The protesters held a banner reading “Strictly enforce the law, stop cross-border traders,” according to the Associated Press (AP).
Prior protests had centered around opposition to a bill in the Hong Kong legislature that would have allowed police to extradite anyone, not just Hong Kong citizens, present in Hong Kong who the Chinese Communist government accused of violating their draconian laws. Hong Kong residents feared that, given the complete lack of protection of freedom of speech and religion in China, the law would allow China to extradite and essentially “disappear” anyone in Hong Kong that publicly criticized the communist system.
Under the “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong is legally a part of China but allowed to operate as a capitalist economy. China chooses Hong Kong’s executives and lawmakers and has increasingly curbed the expressive freedoms traditionally available in Hong Kong under the prior British rule, exacerbating public unrest.
Police and protest organizers appear to agree that the Sha Tin protests ended peacefully on Sunday. The violence began when protesters began to flow through the city’s New Town Plaza shopping mall to get to the train platform they needed to return home. There, protesters say, police blocked them from reaching the platform and began corralling them indoors and attacking them with pepper spray.
Sha Tin, occupied pic.twitter.com/iuPVDDLnT7
— Elaine Yu (@yuenok) July 14, 2019
“As officers moved close to a shopping centre, someone threw bricks and other solid objects at officers from above. To stop it, we needed to go up to the podium level of the mall, which led to the later events,” Commissioner of Police Stephen Lo said at a press conference following the incident, according to the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP). “Our colleagues faced a lot of pressure, and our efforts have only been met with blame from many sides.”
Lo said that protesters surrounded and beat some police officers and that one protester bit a police officer’s finger off.
Lo added that the “thugs” protesting “acted like they lost their senses” and defended the police’s decision to enter the mall by claiming that protesters had conducted “some illegal activities,” without elaborating.
Protesters have especially questioned the police’s choice to enter the New Town Plaza mall with full force given that the owners of the mall did not call the police or give them consent to enter. The owners of the private mall confirmed to the South China Morning Post that they did not report any crimes occurring at the mall to police.
“I wouldn’t say there was much vandalism taking place, but police used violence against citizens anyway,” Sha Tin district councillor Wai Hing-cheung told the Morning Post. “As to what happened, we as a group of district councillors feel very, very shocked and very, very angry.”
Supporters of the protesters noted that the mall’s shops did not report any incidents of looting or vandalism, or any other public disturbances such as illegally blocking roads or attacking officers.
“Have protesters blocked the roads? No. Has anything in the mall been damaged? Don’t see any – and the mall has said it did not ask for police to come in,” Au Nok-hin, a Hong Kong lawmaker supportive of the protests, said, according to the Hong Kong Free Press.
Denise Ho, a pro-democracy activist and pop star that last week appeared before the United Nations to plead their cause, noted on Twitter that some protesters stayed in the mall later to clean up after police had attacked them.
Inside Shatin New Town Plaza tonight.
Note : Although such chaos was caused by police in the mall, not one window was broken, not one shop looted by any protester. Some ppl even cleaned up the place afterwards.
— Denise Ho (HOCC) (@hoccgoomusic) July 14, 2019
A group of riot police charged into New Town Plaza, prompting so far at least 2 rounds of clash. Pepper spray and batons were used. #AntiELAB protesters hurled objects on police. #ShaTin pic.twitter.com/YP8vuh2iBi
— Xinqi Su (@XScmp) July 14, 2019
Protesters accused the police of increasing the number of injuries by using a tactic called “kettling,” in which they cornered protesters trying to get home and attacked them. If the police intended to clear the crowd at the mall, cornering them into an area where they could not leave seemed an intentionally ineffective tactic to do so.
“[L]arge-scale containment tactics should not be used, unless the police have adequate legal backing to make arrests at protest scenes, and have decided to make large-scale arrests,” Civil Rights Observer, an NGO active in Hong Kong, said in a statement, according to the Hong Kong Free Press. “We noticed that a large number of residents and peaceful protesters were kettled within the defence line of the police in the New Town Plaza.”
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who depends on Beijing for her job, called the protesters “rioters” and insisted her administration would prosecute the protesters, but not police who abused their power, to the full extent of the law. She once again insisted she would not resign from her post despite being responsible for the ongoing unrest in the region.
The pro-democracy protest movement, which attracted 2 million people in a city of 7 million at a protest last month, has made Carrie Lam stepping down one of their top demands. The protesters are also asking for the full removal of the extradition bill from the legislature, a government statement rescinding its description of the protesters as “rioters,” and freedom for imprisoned protesters, which they describe as political prisoners.
Lam insisted in a speech last week that the extradition bill was “dead,” but the legislature has not withdrawn it. Instead, the bill was “tabled,” meaning any lawmaker can revive it at a moment’s notice.
The main hindrance currently to lawmakers reviving the bill is that protesters destroyed the Legislative Council’s headquarters two weeks ago.
The Chinese Communist regime, through its state-run newspaper the Global Times, condemned the protesters late Sunday, claiming the peaceful protest in Sha Tin was “unlawful” even when Hong Kong government officials did not disparage the protest, only the aftermath at the shopping mall. The Times claimed that “a large number” of the protesters were “violent”:
Some protestors argued with other people at scene and attempted to charge and besiege police officers when the officers intervened. A large number of violent protestors deliberately charged police cordon lines and attacked police officers with different weapons and objects including iron poles and suspected irritating powder and liquid, causing injuries to the limbs and faces of a number of police officers, the statement said.
China has increased the number of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops stationed in and near Hong Kong since the protests began in early June, in observance of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. State media has disparaged Hong Kong protesters, many of whom are young students, as “reckless” and lazy, in need of a solid Communist Party education.