Hong Kong riot police on Tuesday evening dispersed a protest marking the first anniversary of the Yuen Long railway station attack, a major event in the 2019 protests locally known as the “721 Incident.”
Police searched out and fined both demonstrators and journalists covering the event, along with two politicians, Kwai Tsing district councilor Rayman Chow and Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui. The police denied claims they used excessive force, including pepper balls. The demonstrators reportedly favored black clothing, an inversion of the white shirts worn by the swarm of club-wielding men who attacked pro-democracy protesters, journalists, and innocent bystanders at the Yuen Long station on July 21, 2019.
Critics of the Hong Kong government say Beijing may have ordered the assault, using hired gangsters as muscle and apparently indulged by the Hong Kong police, who responded very slowly to the bloody rampage at Yuen Long and have not vigorously investigated the organizers of the attack.
A few provocative local media reports fueled public anger with the police as the Yuen Long anniversary approached. A documentary prompted the authorities to grudgingly admit they were aware of the white-shirted, club-wielding thugs assembling before they swarmed into the station and started beating people. Further, a separate piece in the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily claimed internal documents show the police were ordered not to respond to calls for help from Yuen Long on the day of the attack.
To date, police have charged only seven people with “rioting” and “conspiracy to injure others” for the 721 Incident, even though over a hundred white-shirted men participated in the beatings. A number of attackers caught on video or photographed by onlookers conspicuously remain unarrested, including one filmed beating up a reporter.
Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) reported that “dozens of protesters” assembled at the Yoho shopping mall near the infamous railroad station and chanted “slogans insulting the police, calling on the force to disband, and advocating Hong Kong independence.”
The demonstrators were first met by mall security guards holding signs that cited the government ban on gatherings of more than four people during the coronavirus emergency. Riot police soon took over, ran identity checks on many of the demonstrators, and dispersed the crowd.
“Many shops then pulled down their shutters, as officers marched through the mall warning people that they may be taking part in an illegal assembly, and that anyone in a group of more than four people are in breach of the gathering ban,” RTHK reported.
Among those detained by the police were legislator Ted Hui, arrested for using a megaphone to tell the police not to “abuse their power” by making needless arrests, and district councilor Rayman Chow, charged with violating Beijing’s new security law for Hong Kong by holding up a sign with the most popular slogan of the 2019 protest movement, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.”
The police reported five arrests plus 79 tickets written for violating the ban on large public gatherings. As one person at the mall sarcastically remarked to RTHK, the police response to the modest demonstration was much faster than when it took them 39 minutes to show up at the Yuen Long railroad station.
A 60-year-old woman named Jenny made a similar point to the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) recalling how news of the Yuen Long attack terrified her. “Police walked past the attackers even though they had weapons in their hands. Those black cops are not human,” she said.
HKFP noted Jenny brandished a few of the new symbols of the resistance movement while demonstrating at the Yoho mall, including a blank white sheet of paper (symbolic of the “White Terror” of oppression in Taiwan decades ago and of the silence imposed on dissidents under the Chinese national security law) and a painting of hands holding up five and one fingers (symbolizing the protest slogan “Five Demands, Not One Less”).
Reuters noted some demonstrators boldly chanting slogans that have been ruled potentially seditious in the much less autonomous Hong Kong that exists today, including open calls for Hong Kong’s independence and the cheeky “Hong Kong, Add Oil” adage, which means “step on the gas and push for independence faster.”
“I’ve had lots of feelings of disappointment in these past few weeks,” a student demonstrator told Reuters. “But Hong Kong people should still keep the revolutionary spirit and fight for their freedoms.”
The authorities have a few new symbols of their own, including a purple banner that warns onlookers they might be violating the national security law. According to the HKFP, the dreaded purple flag was hoisted after Rayman Chow held up signs declaring “Free Hong Kong! Revolution Now!” and accusing the police of colluding with the triads, Hong Kong’s organized crime gangs, which are suspected of providing the manpower for the Yuen Long attack in July 2019.
The situation at the Yoho Mall on Tuesday turned ugly after Chow was arrested because when a crowd of journalists — possibly more numerous than the protesters — rushed forward to shout questions at Chow and snap photos, the police allegedly fired pepper spray at them.
The police later denied firing pepper balls at dangerously close range and bouncing one of them off the head of a demonstrator, a man they dismissed as seeking to drum up publicity for his planned political campaign by claiming to have been treated roughly by the police.
Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on a press conference held on Tuesday by victims of the Yuen Long attack, led by Democratic Party legislator Lam Cheuk-ting, who was one of those assaulted by the white-shirted mob:
One victim, surnamed Lam, said she was injured after falling as she fled the scene in a panic and had to have a knee replacement.
“How did things come to this in Hong Kong? I don’t know, and I can’t accept it,” she said. “I used to be able to teach dancercize at my neighborhood gym, but now I can’t do anything.”
A victim surnamed So said he sustained severe back injuries after being beaten up with a cane, and hit out at police for only convicting seven people in connection with the attack.
“They have claimed all along that they were working on it, and that arrests would be made in due course … but that was totally unconvincing,” So said.
“None of the people who beat me up have been arrested,” he said.
The press conference was then broken up by riot police who shoved Lam Cheuk-ting up and another lawmaker, Andrew Wan, up against a wall and loudly accused them of violating the coronavirus ban on gatherings of more than four people, even though Lam said they were careful to maintain proper social distancing throughout the event.