Hong Kong Protesters Firebomb Coronavirus Clinics; over 100 Arrested

Riot police officers wearing face masks stand guard as residents protest against plans for an empty local housing estate to become a temporary quarantine camp for patients and frontline medical staff of a SARS-like virus outbreak which began in the Chinese city of Wuhan, in the Fanling district in Hong …
PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images

Hong Kong police arrested 115 people between Saturday night and Monday morning for several violent incidents over the weekend that included the use of Molotov cocktails to attack designated Chinese coronavirus treatment centers.

The events of the past 48 hours represent the largest protests in Hong Kong since the coronavirus outbreak forced locals to avoid large assemblies, making it difficult for pro-democracy protesters to gather and demand change. Hong Kong had experienced six months of protests urging the government to allow the direct election of lawmakers and to hold police accountable for violence against dissidents prior to China making the coronavirus outbreak public in January.

Much of the violence appeared to have occurred in the neighborhoods of Mong Kok and Prince Edward. Protesters reportedly first organized to observe the six-month anniversary of a violent police attack on the protest movement in Prince Edward, leaving flowers for those allegedly killed on August 31, though no confirmation of any fatalities at the hands of police exists. Many reports do exist of injuries as a result of clashes with the police during that incident. While protesters insist some died during the August 31 protests, police also used them last week to arrest several prominent supporters of the protest movement, including media mogul and Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai. Lai, a vocal anti-communist, became a regular fixture at Hong Kong’s protests last year.

Reports indicated that police organized at the location where peaceful pro-democracy protesters had agreed to meet on Saturday hours before their planned time and began to attack anyone who arrived to participate in the event. Police began hurling tear gas canisters at protesters to force them to disperse, dismantling the altar of flowers left to the casualties of the August protest. The police action triggered a violent response that reportedly included setting a Mass Transit Rail (MTR) station on fire. The protesters also appeared to be acting in defense of journalists, who police targeted with tear gas and pepper spray.

Protesters complained that, while officers insist their use of tear gas and pepper spray is necessary to disperse crowds, they appear to use it to pack individuals onto small corners of sidewalks that make them easier targets — and make the crowds larger and more dangerous for all, not smaller.

Police reportedly used rubber bullets in addition to tear gas and pepper spray. On one occasion, journalists photographed a police officer brandishing his gun at unarmed protesters menacingly. Police officials confirmed the incident but insisted it was necessary as the officer was cornered into a dangerous situation, allegedly under fire from protesters hurling bricks at him. Hong Kong police claimed the officer “sustained injuries to his head and limbs,” according to the broadcaster RTHK, but never shot his gun.

Other protesters elsewhere in the city organized to object to Hong Kong naming several local clinics designated coronavirus treatment centers, a move the government insists makes it easier for potential carriers to isolate themselves, rather than allowing them to enter any clinic or hospital in the city. Police said they found that one of the designated treatment centers, South Kwai Chung Jockey Club General Outpatient Clinic, suffered a firebombing on Sunday morning, and another, the Kowloon Bay Health Centre General Out-Patient Clinic, was firebombed on Sunday night.

During a press conference on Monday, Police Commissioner Chris Tang announced the arrests of 115 people of the weekend, 71 men and 44 women ranging in age from 15 to 54. The charges varied from unlawful assembly to arson and other violent crimes. Tang made the case that Hong Kong needed to invest heavily in hiring more police officers to repress protests.

“As you can see over the weekend, although the situation had been a little bit quieter in the past few weeks, things can happen at anytime, like what happened on Saturday. They [protesters] set fires again, they threw petrol bombs again, and they made substantial disorder again,” he said. “We have to face the reality that there is a new normal. The new normal is that things cannot go back to one year ago. As you can see, petrol bombs are being thrown every day against police stations, against those clinics. And the potential local terrorism … this is a very significant threat.”

Tang insisted that police did not in any way act inappropriately in attacking pro-democracy protesters, repeatedly referring to them as “rioters.” He also defended the removal of flowers and other gestures of support from the makeshift altar the protesters created.

The pro-democracy protest movement in the city took rise in June, first as hundreds of thousands attended an event commemorating the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, then as millions took the streets to demand the government no longer consider a law that would allow the Communist Party to extradite anyone present in Hong Kong into the secretive and deadly Chinese criminal justice system. The Hong Kong government ultimately yielded to that demand, tabling the bill that would have allowed extraditions, but protesters continued to demand democratic reforms. The protesters are asking to no longer be referred to as “rioters,” for the government to establish an independent investigation into police brutality, for the direct election of all lawmakers, and the release of political prisoners.

In the aftermath of the revelation that China identified a new, highly contagious virus in January, much of the energy of these protests shifted to condemning the Hong Kong government for not acting to close the border with China and for sending health workers into hospitals to handle contagious cases without the necessary protections. Hong Kong’s health workers went on strike to demand full border closures — the government only shut down all but three points of entry — and subsequent protests against coronavirus treatment centers in residential neighborhoods have continued.

As of Monday, Hong Kong has confirmed 100 cases of the Chinese coronavirus.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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