Hundreds of protesters swarmed the New Town Mall in Sha Tin, a suburb of Hong Kong city, on Tuesday night demanding an explanation for police violence against peaceful protesters attempting to reach a mass transit platform to get home on Sunday.
The protest on Sunday, attracting 115,000 in the typically far more sleepy Sha Tin than downtown Hong Kong, ended peacefully. As protesters made their way to the mall – a necessary point of entry to the closest Mass Transit Railway (MTR) platform – police surrounded them, setting off pepper spray indoors and beating some protesters. In the ensuing scuffle, police say that 22 people were hospitalized, about half officers and half civilians. One police officer reportedly had his finger bitten off.
The company that owns the New Town Mall, Sun Hung Kai Properties, claimed on Sunday that no one at the mall called for police or explicitly gave officers permission to enter. Neither Sun Hung Kai nor any of the stores operating in the mall reported any incidents of vandalism or theft on the part of protesters and some eyewitnesses say that protesters stayed in the mall to help employees clean up on Sunday after the violence subsided.
Hong Kong has regularly erupted in protests since early June following the introduction of a bill in the city’s Legislative Council that would allow the Communist Party of China to abduct any individual, regardless of nationality, present in Hong Kong if Beijing charges them with a violation of Chinese law. Opponents to the extradition bill say it violates “One Country, Two Systems,” the policy China agreed to in 1997 that bans it from imposing Communist Party law onto Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the bill was “dead” last week and called its rollout a “total failure.” The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement notes that the bill has not been withdrawn from legislative consideration, only “tabled,” meaning any lawmaker could revive it at any time. To prevent the law from passing, protesters destroyed the Legislative Council headquarters in early July.
The protest movement is demanding a full withdrawal of the extradition bill, freedom for all imprisoned protesters, and an official statement acknowledging that the protests have not been “riots” (as authorities have referred to them). Some are demanding Carrie Lam resign, which she has refused to do.
The disturbance at the New Town Mall on Tuesday was intended to elicit a clear explanation from Sun Hung Kai for why officers were allowed to attack a peaceful, unarmed crowd on their property. According to the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP), protesters surrounded the mall’s customer service desk on both Monday and Tuesday nights, but the crowd on Tuesday was larger. The news outlet reported that those assembled chanted “shame on Sun Hung Kai for selling out Hongkongers” and demanded that authorities explain how they allowed the violence to occur.
“Some accused the mall of shutting off the air-conditioning, but a staff member at the desk denied doing so,” HKFP added. Others in the crowd said they had not initially been protesting on Sunday – they were in the mall to shop when the police stormed in – and police brutalized them, anyway. A woman identified as Yeow Wai-chung told the Morning Post that she was no longer certain the mall was “safe” because of her experience being attacked while shopping because police assumed she was a pro-democracy protester.
Asia Times noted that, like Yeow, many in the protest crowd Tuesday were not pro-democracy activists, but residents of Sha Tin who feared that authorities would turn the quiet suburb into a police state. The outlet quoted an unnamed resident of Sha Tin who told the local Radio Television Hong Kong, “What happened on Sunday was totally unacceptable to all people living in this town. This is an open public space.”
“This shopping mall hasn’t done anything regarding their obligation and duty to protect the people who are the shoppers and those who have actually contributed to the growth of this business over the last three decades,” the resident reportedly continued. “They are selling themselves. They are selling their souls and their business.”
Another unnamed Sha Tin resident told the HKFP that they felt “the real estate management didn’t [fulfil] its duty to protect the patrons … Whenever I’m shopping here, or just passing by, they have a responsibility to protect our safety.”
The aggrieved organized on Tuesday also built a “Lennon wall” – an impromptu mural made of sticky notes where each protester expresses themselves in their note – inside the mall. Protesters organized online, the South China Morning Post reported, and some vowed to return on Wednesday night, and every night until the mall satisfies their demand for an explanation.
New Town Mall employees responded to the protest by handing out individual complaint forms and urging each protester to fill them out and refer to authorities higher than the representatives at the customer service desk.
Sun Hung Kai Properties has continued to insist that none of its employees called on police to enter the mall.
“The incident that occurred in the new city square on July 14 caused confusion and disappointed the public, mall customers and business tenants,” a statement published Wednesday on the official Facebook page of the New Town Mall read. “No police were asked to enter the mall and the police did not inform the mall head before the admission of the police.”
The statement added that, given the MTS platform only accessible through the mall, its administrators must keep it open to all of the public and must allow police to conduct legitimate law enforcement business on their premises. New Town Mall will, the statement added, issue a new statement of concern about Sunday’s incident to police.
The mall’s administrators “understand that police have the right to perform their duties in the mall, but hope that the police can also take into account the personal safety of the general public,” the statement read.
Mall authorities also stated that a video circulating on social media showing mall employees allowing the police to enter was legitimate, but defended their duty to allow officers in. Mall authorities had claimed in a previous statement that the officers had a warrant, which made it impossible for staffers to block their entry.
Police arrested at least 40 people in the protests Sunday. Pro-democracy leaders have organized more protests throughout the week. The communist government of China threatened through its state media on Monday, following the Sha Tin protest, to send the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into Hong Kong to silence protests if the police do not properly curb them.