China to ‘perfect’ HK system as water cannon breaks up Guy Fawkes protest

China to ‘perfect’ HK system as water cannon breaks up Guy Fawkes protest
By John Geddie and Kate Lamb

HONG KONG (Reuters) – The Chinese Communist Party said on Tuesday it would “perfect” the system for choosing the leader of Hong Kong after months of anti-government protests, as police in the ex-British colony fired water cannon to break up a Guy Fawkes-themed march.

The party said in a statement it would support its “special administrative region” of Hong Kong, which returned to China in 1997, and not tolerate any “separatist behavior” either there or in neighboring Macau, an ex-Portuguese colony that was handed back to Chinese rule two years later.

Some protesters in Hong Kong, angry at perceived Chinese meddling in its freedoms, have called for independence in sometimes violent unrest, a red line for Beijing. China denies interference.

As the party statement was released by Xinhua news agency, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said she had held a short meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Shanghai.

“He expressed care and concern about Hong Kong, especially given the social disturbances that we have seen in the last five months and he expressed support for the various action taken by Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government,” she told reporters.

Referring to the foundation of the 1997 deal under which Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, Lam said: “…In strict accordance with the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ (we will continue) upholding the rule of law and trying to put an end to the violence.”

The “one country, two systems” formula guarantees Hong Kong’s freedoms, including an independent judicial system, for 50 years.

Lam denied widely reported rumors that her government was considering an amnesty for protesters charged with offences, one of the demands of the protesters. “In simple terms, it will not happen,” she said.

BONFIRE NIGHT PROTESTS

After gatecrashing fancy-dress Halloween festivities on Oct. 31, hundreds of Hong Kong protesters marked Guy Fawkes Day on Tuesday in the Tsim Sha Tsui tourist district of Kowloon by wearing the white, smiling Guy Fawkes masks made popular by anti-establishment hackers, the film “V for Vendetta” and protesters globally.

Some protesters vandalized traffic lights and a restaurant perceived as being pro-Beijing, prompting police to move in with the water cannon, near the science museum, as they have done on many nights during five months of demonstrations. Some protesters were detained while others ran off.

Guy Fawkes Day, also called Bonfire Night, is celebrated with fireworks and bonfires every Nov. 5 in Britain. Effigies of “guys” are burnt, marking the night in 1605 when Fawkes was arrested for a “gunpowder plot” to blow up parliament.

“We are here to tell the government that we are not afraid of them and that they should be afraid of us,” masked protester Pete, 27, said in front of the huge, harborfront neon Christmas decorations.

Lam banned face masks last month, invoking colonial-era emergency powers for the first time in more than 50 years, but protesters have largely ignored the ruling.

China’s Communist Party, in a lengthy statement about decisions reached at a key leadership meeting known as a plenum last week, said it would improve the national security system in Hong Kong, as well as in Macau, though it gave no details.

The party decided to “establish a robust legal system and enforcement mechanism to safeguard national security in the special administrative regions and support them to strengthen law enforcement”.

The party will “perfect” the appointment and dismissal mechanisms for the leaders and senior officials of the two territories, it added, reiterating comments from a Chinese parliament official last week. Again, no details were given.

It will also perfect the system under which the party has full jurisdictional power over Hong Kong, in accordance with the constitution, Xinhua said.

The demonstrations in Hong Kong began over a since-scrapped extradition bill and escalated in mid-June against China. Protesters have kept up their calls for universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, among other demands.

The protests, which pose the gravest challenge to Xi since he came to power in 2012, have received broad support.

The number of people who take part in the mostly weekend rallies has dwindled from the millions who participated in June, but violence and vandalism have escalated. Authorities have refused permits for many recent protests, making them illegal from the outset and activists liable to be arrested.

There have been many injuries in the protests, but no deaths. A 22-year-old student at a Hong Kong university who fell during protests at the weekend was in critical condition on Tuesday, hospital authorities said.

A man stabbed at least two people on Sunday and bit off part of a politician’s ear before being beaten by protesters. A 48-year-old suspect has been charged with wounding.

Lam expressed her sympathies for the wounded, singling out the 22-year-old student.

(Reporting by Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok, Farah Master, Sharon Lam, Sarah Wu, Kate Lamb and John Geddie in Hong Kong and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Apple pulls police-tracking app used by Hong Kong protesters after consulting authorities

By Stephen Nellis and John Ruwitch

SAN FRANCISCO/HONG KONG (Reuters) – Apple Inc has removed an app that helped Hong Kong protesters track police movements, saying it was used to ambush law enforcement – a move that follows sharp criticism of the U.S. tech giant by a Chinese state newspaper for allowing the software.

The decision to bar the HKmap.live app, which crowdsources the locations of both police and protesters, from its app store plunges Apple into the increasingly fraught political tension between China and the protesters that has also ensnared other U.S. and Hong Kong businesses.

Apple had only just last week approved the app after rejecting it earlier this month. The Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper on Tuesday called the app “poisonous” and decried what it said was Apple’s complicity in helping the Hong Kong protesters.

Apple said in a statement on Wednesday it had begun an immediate investigation after “many concerned customers in Hong Kong” contacted the company about the app and Apple found it had endangered law enforcement and residents.

“The app displays police locations and we have verified with the Hong Kong Cybersecurity and Technology Crime Bureau that the app has been used to target and ambush police, threaten public safety, and criminals have used it to victimize residents in areas where they know there is no law enforcement,” it said.

Apple did not comment beyond its statement. The company also removed BackupHK, a separate app that served as a mirror of the HKmap.live app.

On Twitter, an account believed to be owned by the HKmap.live app’s developer said it disagreed with Apple’s decision and there was no evidence to support the Hong Kong police’s claims via Apple that the app had been used in ambushes.

“The majority of user review(s) in App Store … suggest HKmap IMPROVED public safety, not the opposite,” it said.

The app consolidates content from public posts on social networks and moderators delete content that solicited criminal activity and would ban repeated attempts to post such content in the app, it added.

Neither China’s foreign ministry nor the information office of the State Council had an immediate comment when asked about the HKmap.live app removal. Hong Kong police also had no immediate comment.

In a separate move, Apple also removed the Quartz news app from its App Store in China because Chinese authorities said the app violated local laws.

Quartz Chief Executive Zach Seward told technology publication The Verge in a statement: “We abhor this kind of government censorship of the internet, and have great coverage of how to get around such bans around the world.”

ANGER IN HONG KONG

The People’s Daily newspaper on Tuesday blasted Apple, saying it did not have a sense of right and wrong, and ignored the truth. Making the app available on Apple’s Hong Kong App Store at this time was “opening the door” to violent protesters in the former British colony, the newspaper wrote.

The HKmap.live app was taken down from Apple’s app store globally on Wednesday but continued to work for users who had previously downloaded it in Hong Kong, Reuters found. A web version was also still viewable on iPhones.

Word of the its removal spread quickly in Hong Kong, where residents have been campaigning for months in sometimes violent demonstrations – first to protest a now-withdrawn extradition bill and currently in a broader push for democratic rights.

“Does the entire world have to suck up to the garbage Communist Party?” one commentator called Yip Lou Jie said in an online forum, LIHKG, which is used by protesters in Hong Kong.

But Simon Young, associate dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong, said Apple seemed to have a case given the circumstances.

“It sounds like they are being responsible. To do nothing when it’s being used for a specific purpose that actually facilitates these protests, to do nothing would be rather irresponsible,” he said.

Apple’s action has come amid a furor surrounding the National Basketball Association after a team official tweeted in support of the protests in Hong Kong and which has led Chinese sponsors and partners to cut ties with the NBA.

Cathay Pacific Airways, Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, has also felt the wrath of China’s aviation regulator, which has called for the suspension of staff who have taken part in the protests or expressed support.

Under Apple’s rules and policies, apps that meet its standards to appear in the App Store have sometimes been removed after their release if they were found to facilitate illegal activity or threaten public safety.

In 2011, Apple modified its app store to remove apps that listed locations for drunken driving checkpoints not previously published by law enforcement officials.

(Reporting by Stephen Nellis and John Ruwitch; Additional reporting by Greg Mitchell in San Francisco; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

Police fire tear gas as protests swell after Hong Kong imposes emergency powers

By Clare Jim and Noah Sin

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam invoked colonial-era emergency powers last used more than 50 years ago on Friday, in a dramatic move that enraged protesters who took to the streets of the Chinese-ruled city within hours.

Lam, speaking at a news conference, said a ban on face masks would take effect on Saturday under the emergency laws that allow authorities to “make any regulations whatsoever” in whatever they deem to be in the public interest.

China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office praised the move in a statement that said the protests were evolving into a “color revolution”, a term coined to refer to popular uprisings in Ukraine and other former Soviet states that swept away long-standing rulers, with interference from external forces.

The emergency laws allow curfews, censorship of the media, and control of harbors, ports and transport, although Lam did not specify any particular action that might follow beyond the mask ban.

Nearly four months of anti-government protests have plunged Hong Kong into its biggest political crisis since its handover from Britain to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that granted it autonomy and broad freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland.

Lam said her move was necessary to quell escalating violence.

But as darkness fell, defiant demonstrators took to the streets to vent their anger, vandalizing what they perceived to be China-friendly businesses and blocking road in the heart of the financial center. Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in flashpoint districts across the territory, including Causeway Bay, Sha Tin and Wong Tai Sin.

Shopping malls, banks and shops across Hong Kong island had closed early in anticipation of violence as some protesters burned Chinese flags and chanted “You burn with us”, and “Hong Kongers, revolt”.

“The anti-mask law has become a tool of tyranny,” said Samuel Yeung, an 18-year-old university student, as crowds swelled in the main financial district of Central, beneath gleaming skyscrapers that house the Asia headquarters of companies including HSBC.

“They can make use of the emergency law to enact any policies or laws that the government wants. There’s no rule of law anymore. We can only be united and protest.”

“NOT A STATE OF EMERGENCY”

What began as opposition to a proposed extradition law, which could have seen people sent for trial in mainland courts, has grown into a broad pro-democracy movement and a serious challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

The protesters are angry about what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in their city’s affairs. China dismisses accusations it is meddling and has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of stirring up anti-China sentiment.

On Friday evening, thousands of demonstrators – many blue-collar workers and unmasked residents – gathered across the territory, filling shopping malls and blocking roads. Bus routes were suspended and rail operator MTR closed stations.

Many protesters wear masks to hide their identity due to fears employers could face pressure to take action against them.

“Almost all protesters wear masks, with the intention of hiding their identity. That’s why they have become more unbridled,” said Lam.

“We can’t keep the existing regulations idle and let violence escalate and the situation continue to deteriorate.”

Lam described the territory as being in serious danger, but not in a state of emergency.

Pro-Beijing groups had been pushing for a mask ban, but it was not clear how the government would implement it in a city where many of its 7.4 million residents wear them every day to protect against infection following the outbreak of the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003.

Police can stop anyone in public and ask them to remove a mask if the officer believes it may prevent identification, according to the law. Exceptions are made if the person wearing a mask can prove they need it for medical, religious or professional reasons.

Offenders face a maximum fine of HK$25,000 ($3,200) and imprisonment for a year, according to details of the prohibition published by the government.

“SOMETHING DRASTIC”

Authorities had already loosened guidelines on the use of force by police, according to documents seen by Reuters.

That came just before an escalation in violence on Tuesday, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, when police fired about 1,800 volleys of tear gas, 900 rubber bullets and six live bullets – one of which hit an 18-year-old, the first time a protester had been hit be live fire.

The student, Tony Tsang, was shot at close range as he fought with a policeman. He is stable in hospital and has been charged with rioting, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence and assaulting an officer.

Pro-democracy campaigners condemned Lam’s latest decision.

“This is an ancient, colonial set of regulations, and you don’t use them unless you can’t legislate anymore,” said Martin Lee, a veteran activist and one of the city’s most prominent lawyers. “Once you start, there’s no end to it.”

The U.N. human rights office said Hong Kong must protect the right to freedom of assembly and Britain urged its former colony not to aggravate tension.

Some Hong Kong’s businesses, struggling with a dip in tourism and retail sales due to the protests, gave the law a warmer welcome.

“I agree with it at this point,” said businessman Allan Zeman, who is also an economic adviser to Lam. “You have to do something drastic to end the violence.”

But Hong Kong shares fell on Friday, hitting one-month lows.

(Reporting by Clare Jim and Noah Sin; Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu, Poppy McPherson, Donny Kwok, James Pomfret, Jessie Pang, Felix Tam and Farah Master in Hong Kong, Sun Yilei in Shanghai and Chen Aizhu in Singapore; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Bill Rigby; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

Special Report: China quietly doubles troop levels in Hong Kong, envoys say

By Greg Torode, James Pomfret and David Lague

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Last month, Beijing moved thousands of troops across the border into this restive city. They came in on trucks and armored cars, by bus and by ship.

The state news agency Xinhua described the operation as a routine “rotation” of the low-key force China has kept in Hong Kong since the city’s handover from Britain in 1997. No mention was made of the anti-government protests that have been shaking the metropolis since June.

It was a plausible report: China has maintained a steady level of force in the territory for years, regularly swapping troops in and out. And days earlier, according to an audio recording obtained by Reuters, embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam had told local businesspeople that China had “absolutely no plan” to order the army to put down the demonstrations.

A month on, Asian and Western envoys in Hong Kong say they are certain the late-August deployment was not a rotation at all, but a reinforcement. Seven envoys who spoke to Reuters said they didn’t detect any significant number of existing forces in Hong Kong returning to the mainland in the days before or after the announcement.

Three of the envoys said the contingent of Chinese military personnel in Hong Kong had more than doubled in size since the protests began. They estimated the number of military personnel is now between 10,000 and 12,000, up from 3,000 to 5,000 in the months before the reinforcement.

As a result, the envoys believe, China has now assembled its largest-ever active force of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops and other anti-riot personnel and equipment in Hong Kong.

Significantly, five of the diplomats say, the build-up includes elements of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), a mainland paramilitary anti-riot and internal security force under a separate command from the PLA. While Reuters was unable to determine the size of the PAP contingent, envoys say the bulk of the troops in Hong Kong are from the PLA.

PAP forces would be likely to spearhead any crackdown if Beijing decides to intervene, according to foreign envoys and security analysts. These paramilitary troops are specially trained in non-lethal tactics and methods of riot suppression and crowd control.

The envoys declined to say how exactly they determined that the recent troop movement was a reinforcement or how they arrived at their troop estimates. Reuters reporters visited the areas surrounding multiple PLA bases in Hong Kong and observed significantly increased movements by troops and armored vehicles at the facilities.

China’s Ministry of National Defense, the State Council Information Office, and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office did not respond to questions from Reuters. In early September, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said China would “not sit idly by” if the situation in the city continued to deteriorate and posed a threat to “the country’s sovereignty.”

The office of Carrie Lam and the PLA garrison in Hong Kong also did not respond to questions. A Hong Kong police spokesperson told Reuters the police force was “capable of maintaining law and order and determined to restore public safety in Hong Kong.”

REVAMPING THE PARAMILITARY

The PAP is a key element in Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s drive to reinforce the ruling Communist Party’s control over the nation of 1.4 billion people while building a potent military that can supplant the United States as Asia’s dominant power. The PAP has up to one million troops, according to an April research paper from the U.S.’s National Defense University – about half the size of China’s standing military. The paramilitary’s primary duty is to defend against potential enemies within – countering domestic upheaval and protecting top leaders. In recent years, it has contained unrest in Xinjiang and Tibet. Elements of this force are also trained for counter-terrorism, securing key infrastructure, disaster relief and international peacekeeping.

After installing himself as commander-in-chief and reshaping the regular military, Xi turned attention to the PAP. His first move was to take personal control. In early 2018, the PAP was brought under direct command of the Central Military Commission, the top military decision-making body that Xi chairs. Previously, the PAP had come under the split command of the commission and the State Council, China’s top government administrative body.

This put Xi at the apex of Beijing’s military and paramilitary forces, further concentrating power in his hands. With the eruption of the protests in Hong Kong, however, Xi now faces the biggest popular challenge to his rule.

News of the reinforcements in Hong Kong comes as city officials are bracing for more demonstrations on Tuesday, Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Intense clashes between protesters and police rocked the city over the weekend ahead of the celebrations.

In her private remarks in August, city Chief Executive Lam played down the possibility that Beijing might deploy the PLA. Foreign envoys and security analysts said they too believe China’s strong preference is not to use troops.

Still, they said, the troop build-up shows Beijing wants to be ready to act if the Hong Kong government and its 30,000-strong police force lose control of the city. Lam herself expressed concern about the force’s ability to keep control. On some days, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets. She said the police are “outnumbered” by the protesters, making enforcement “extremely difficult.”

“Apart from the 30,000 men and women in the force we have nothing,” she told the gathering of businesspeople. “Really. We have nothing. I have nothing.”

Until now, the PAP’s presence in Hong Kong has been limited to a small advance detachment nestled discreetly within existing PLA facilities, according to one of the diplomats. The new deployment marks the first significant entry of the PAP into Hong Kong. It wasn’t mentioned in official accounts of the rotation nor in the state-controlled press.

The combined deployment of the PLA and the PAP follows months of official statements denouncing the protests and dramatic signaling to Hong Kongers. This included news reports and footage showing anti-riot drills by both the PLA and the PAP, released by the military on social media. Last month, hundreds of PAP troops conducted extensive exercises in a football stadium in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. Troops in the area could also be deployed to Hong Kong if the crisis deepened, foreign diplomats said.

ENFORCING XI’S ‘RED LINE’

The protests and street violence in Hong Kong erupted in early June, over a bill – since scrapped – that would have paved the way for people to be extradited to the mainland. The unrest came two years after Xi defined a “red line” for Hong Kong. He used the phrase in a 2017 speech in the city, warning that domestic threats to national sovereignty will not be tolerated.

Chinese security forces are better equipped to handle civil unrest than they were a generation ago. In 1989, it was the PLA that was sent in to smash student protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. It used the tools of war – battle tanks, armored vehicles and infantry.

In Hong Kong, the reinforcement includes equipment tailor-made for quelling urban violence with non-lethal force – including water cannon vehicles and trucks used to lay barbed-wire barricades. Additional transport helicopters have been moved into the city. Reuters reporters have seen these flying frequently around Hong Kong and its hinterlands, the New Territories, an observation confirmed by foreign envoys and security analysts monitoring developments here.

Other trucks, bearing military number plates, have been seen pre-loaded with street fortifications, at times moving about the city. Reuters reporters have tracked increased activity at many of the PLA’s 17 facilities across Hong Kong Island, its neighboring city of Kowloon and the rural New Territories. Most of these facilities were inherited by the PLA under agreement with the departing British forces during the 1997 handover.

Fatigues and other laundry can be seen hanging from the balconies of buildings that had lain dormant for years. Army buses and jeeps are parked in once-abandoned lots.

Some foreign analysts say China’s reinforced military presence was bigger than expected and appears to have been well-prepared. They say the size of the force means it is now far beyond the symbolic role traditionally played by the local garrison.

“They do seem to have an active contingency plan to deal with something like a total breakdown in order by the Hong Kong police,” said Alexander Neill, a Singapore-based security analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “I would think it would take something like that or some other worst-case scenario for them to deploy. But they are clearly more ready than before, and are leaving nothing to chance.”

So far, the expanded Chinese forces remain firmly within their barracks – a continuation of what has been an unobtrusive presence since the handover.

In 1997, trucks full of white-gloved PLA soldiers, some carrying flowers, rolled into Hong Kong within hours of Britain’s handover of its colony to Chinese rule. The sight sparked anxiety among politicians, activists and the public that still lingers. Beyond the occasional so-called open day, when the public gets access to the PLA barracks, the troops rarely interact with ordinary Hong Kongers.

Unlike forces on the mainland, soldiers within the Hong Kong garrison are not usually accompanied by their families. They are rarely allowed to socialize outside their bases; for news, they are given access to China’s state media.

“They live like monks,” said one Hong Kong-based mainland security specialist familiar with local PLA forces. “It is a vastly different deployment to anything on the mainland – almost akin to something they might experience on peacekeeping duties in Africa.”

The local Chinese security presence must be squared with handover guarantees that Hong Kong’s autonomy would remain for at least 50 years – including broad freedoms and an independent judiciary, which don’t exist in the rest of China.

Under the city’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, defense and foreign affairs are the sole responsibility of the Communist Party leadership in Beijing. The document states that the PLA garrison “shall not interfere in local affairs,” but Hong Kong can request the garrison’s assistance to maintain public order. And garrison members must abide by local laws.

Chinese law, meanwhile, allows for the standing committee of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, to deploy the garrison if a state of war or emergency is declared for Hong Kong. The law cites “turmoil” that threatens national security and is “beyond the control of the (Hong Kong) government.”

ONE PRESENCE, TWO FORCES

The PLA garrison is commanded by Major-General Chen Daoxiang, who is shadowed by a political commissar, Major-General Cai Yongzhong. But neither officer, nor territory leader Lam, would have the authority to deploy the security forces. Any military clampdown on China’s freest and most international city would only be ordered by Xi’s powerful Central Military Commission, say local officials and foreign diplomats.

In June, garrison commander Chen told a visiting Pentagon official that Chinese troops would not interfere in the city’s affairs, according to people briefed on the discussion. U.S. officials at the time said they read the comment as an early signal that Beijing intended to keep them in their barracks.

Less is known about the command structure of the PAP forces in Hong Kong. Few residents of the city are even aware of their presence within existing PLA facilities.

From the early years of its revolutionary struggle against the Nationalists, the Chinese Communist Party fielded a range of paramilitary forces to guard the leadership and key headquarters. These forces assumed an internal security role after the Communists took power in 1949. The PAP was formed in 1982, as the paramount leader of the time, Deng Xiaoping, modernized and downsized the military after the Cultural Revolution. The PAP absorbed thousands of regular army troops.

Still, the PAP was poorly trained and equipped, with a fragmented command, when the 1989 Tiananmen protests threatened the party’s grip. China’s leaders had to call on army units to crush the protests with tanks and machine guns. The scenes of bloodshed on the streets of the Chinese capital were a blow to the party’s reputation. In the aftermath, the leadership reequipped and retrained the PAP in crowd-control operations.

Security analysts say the PAP’s budget has grown as the force has modernized, but figures are undisclosed. The government stopped revealing full domestic security spending numbers in 2014 – after the internal security budget had topped the fast-growing regular military budget for the previous three years.

In the restive region of Xinjiang, the PAP has been used heavily to counter what China describes as a terrorist threat from Uighurs, an ethnic Muslim minority. As many as a million Uighurs and Muslims from other ethnic groups have been incarcerated in prison camps, according to the United Nations. China counters that the facilities are vocational training centers to help stamp out religious extremism and teach new work skills.

“The PAP can be seen as a blunt instrument with the key function of suppressing domestic unrest,” said Trevor Hollingsbee, a retired British defense ministry intelligence analyst who served as a Hong Kong security official until 1997. “Their role has been streamlined and their command sharpened under Xi.”

‘IT’S TOO RISKY’

The PAP also has been active in southern China, close to Hong Kong. PAP riot police have been sent to quell factory strikes and other labor unrest in the Pearl River Delta, one of China’s key manufacturing areas.

In 2011, before Xi came to power, PAP troops were deployed as part of the clampdown on Wukan. The southern coastal village drew international attention when residents threw up barricades against local authorities to protest land seizures. In a rare climbdown, the provincial government eventually dissolved the old village committee and allowed free elections. Many protest leaders were voted into office.

When fresh protests broke out in 2016, over a failure to resolve the land issues and other grievances, the PAP and other security forces were sent in again. This time, the response was harsher.

Video footage of the clashes was shown by villagers to a Reuters reporter who reached the area soon after the protests erupted. It showed locals hurling bricks at ranks of shield-carrying riot police. The troops used tear gas, rubber bullets and batons. No deaths were reported. But a Reuters reporter on the scene observed several injured villagers, some with bloody head wounds.

In Hong Kong, Chinese military forces have been conducting anti-riot drills in their bases in recent weeks. Reuters reporters viewed one drill in late September from a public road near the PLA base in rural Tam Mei. They saw helmeted Chinese troops undergoing exercises, some armed with rifles, shields and batons. Inside the base were dozens of camouflaged armored personnel carriers, command jeeps, large bulldozers and trucks.

Reuters and foreign diplomats have also seen extra forces at the PLA headquarters in central Hong Kong, next to local government offices in the city’s Admiralty district. Protests have broken out repeatedly just meters from the PLA compound. Amid attempts by police to secure the area, protesters have at times hurled petrol bombs near the headquarters’ granite walls. Clouds of police tear gas have wafted into the compound.

So far, though, protesters haven’t targeted PLA bases directly, even as they have vandalized the national flag and other symbols of Chinese sovereignty.

“We don’t mess with the People’s Liberation Army,” said Leo Wong, a young protester, standing near the PLA headquarters during a late-September demonstration. “If we attacked the PLA, anything could happen. It’s too risky.”

(Reporting by Greg Torode, James Pomfret and David Lague. Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong. Editing by Peter Hirschberg.)

Hong Kong protesters denounce police ahead of flashpoint weekend

By Jessie Pang and Felix Tam

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of Hong Kong protesters rallied at the harbor side on Friday, chanting slogans accusing the police of brutality and setting the stage for a weekend of demonstrations leading up to the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.

The downtown rally was one of a series of protests that have united activists denouncing Chinese rule, calling for democracy and even for independence from Beijing, often resulting in violent clashes with police in the former British colony.

Activists have targeted police over more than three months with petrol bombs, rocks and laser shone in their eyes, furious at social media footage of random beatings, especially one night against protesters cowering on the floor of a subway train.

Police have responded with teargas, water cannon, rubber bullets and occasional live rounds fired into the air.

The protesters gathered at a park on reclaimed land in front of central government offices on Friday night calling for an investigation into the remote San Uk Ling camp near the Chinese border where they say detained protesters were abused, a claim police deny.

“It’s obvious that there’s a problem of police brutality,” said 19-year-old university student Peter Sin. “They now arrest people randomly and there’s much inhumane treatment during prosecution and detention.”

Police said the camp was no longer being used to hold protesters.

“Its setting and facilities are all in line with police policies and regulations,” they said in a statement. “We will stop using San Uk Ling Holding Centre for holding arrested people in this operation. The reason is to avoid any further public speculation and unnecessary remarks accusing the police.”

One officer told reporters last week that some officers had overstepped the line when dealing with protesters.

“You are talking about a prolonged situation, chaos, violent encounters,” he said. “We have established procedures to deal with allegations of abuse of force. Every day, with every chance we have, we remind our officers not to succumb to emotions.

“We’ve gone through multiple situations where lethal force would have been justified, but our officers chose not to use it.”

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, in the first “open dialogue” session with the people on Thursday, said she would not accede to protesters’ demands for an independent inquiry into police action. She did not explain why.

PROTESTS ON REPUBLIC’S ANNIVERSARY

This weekend, the Asian financial hub marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the “Umbrella” protests, a series of student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 that failed to wrest concessions from Beijing.

One of the most prominent leaders of those protests, the bespectacled Joshua Wong, then just 17, is expected to announce on Saturday that he will run for local district council elections in November, his supporters said.

He is on bail after being charged with inciting and participating in an unauthorized assembly outside police headquarters on June 21.

Thousands of people are expected to rally in the city center on Saturday evening. Protests are also expected on Sunday to mark Global Anti-Totalitarianism Day, with solidarity events planned in cities across the world, including Paris, Berlin, Taipei, New York, Kiev and London.

But the biggest protests are likely to be on Oct. 1, marking the anniversary of the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, with protesters saying they plan to use the holiday to propel calls for greater democracy.

Activists plan a mass rally from Victoria Park in the bustling Causeway Bay district to Chater Garden near government headquarters.

Official festivities for National Day have been scaled back, with authorities keen to avoid embarrassing Beijing at a time when President Xi Jinping is seeking to project an image of national strength and unity.

Pro-Beijing rallies are also planned in the city, raising the prospect of clashes.

The protests were sparked in June by a bill, since withdrawn, that would have allowed the extradition of suspected criminals to mainland China but have since expanded into a broader pro-democracy movement.

Protesters are angry about what they see as creeping Chinese interference in Hong Kong, which returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula intended to guarantee freedoms that are not enjoyed on the mainland.

China denies meddling. It has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of inciting the unrest.

(Additional reporting by Donny Kwok, Anne Marie Roantree, Twinnie Siu and Marius Zaharia; Writing by Poppy McPherson and Nick Macfie; Editing by Pravin Char)

Hong Kong leader says dialogue and ‘mutual respect’ offer way out of chaos

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam holds a news conference in Hong Kong, China, August 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang

By Noah Sin and Felix Tam

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday she hoped a peaceful weekend anti-government protest was the start of efforts to restore calm and that talks with non-violent protesters would provide “a way out” for the Chinese-ruled city.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied peacefully in torrential rain on Sunday in the eleventh week of what have been often violent demonstrations.

“I sincerely hope that this was the beginning of society returning to peace and staying away from violence,” Lam said.

“We will immediately start the work to establish a platform for dialogue. This dialogue, I hope, will be based on a mutual understanding and respect and find a way out for today’s Hong Kong.”

Anger erupted in June over a now-suspended bill that would allow criminal suspects in the former British colony to be extradited to mainland China for trial.

The unrest has been fueled by broader worries about the erosion of freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula put in place after Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, including an independent judiciary and the right to protest.

Three people were wounded, one critically, in a knife attack by an unknown assailant near a “Lennon Wall” of colorful pro-protest messages in the city’s Tseung Kwan O district in the New Territories overnight, police said. One man was arrested.

The protests have prompted sharp reactions from Beijing, which has accused foreign countries, including the United States, of fomenting unrest in the territory. China has also sent clear warning that forceful intervention is possible, with paramilitary forces holding drills in neighboring Shenzhen.

Britain’s Foreign Office said it was extremely concerned about reports that a Hong Kong staff member had been detained in mainland China, but there was no immediate suggestion that there was any link to the protests.

Staff member Simon Cheng did not return to work on Aug. 9 after visiting the neighboring mainland city of Shenzhen the previous day, Hong Kong news website HK01 reported. China’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment. Hong Kong police did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

Twitter Inc and Facebook Inc also said on Monday they had dismantled a state-backed social media campaign originating in mainland China that sought to undermine protests in Hong Kong.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang declined direct comment on the Twitter and Facebook actions, but defended the right of Chinese people to make their voices heard.

Further demonstrations are planned in the next few days, including by MTR subway workers on Wednesday, secondary school students on Thursday and accountants on Friday.

The protests are exacting a toll on the city’s economy and tourism, with the Asian financial hub on the verge of its first recession in a decade.

Singapore universities have canceled exchange programs to Hong Kong after Singapore warned its citizens to defer travel there, news website Today reported.

Singapore’s foreign ministry said in an advisory last week large protests in Hong Kong had become unpredictable and could turn violent with little or no notice.

AGGRESSIVE TACTICS

Sunday’s protest turnout, which organizers put at 1.7 million, showed that the movement still has widespread support despite chaotic scenes last week when protesters occupied the airport.

Some activists had apologized for the airport turmoil and protesters could be seen on Sunday night urging others to go home peacefully.

Aside from seeking Lam’s resignation, demonstrators have five demands – complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, a halt to descriptions of the protests as “rioting”, a waiver of charges against those arrested, an independent inquiry and resumption of political reform.

“The bill is dead,” Lam told Tuesday’s news briefing. “There is no plan to revive the bill, especially in light of the public concerns.”

Police have been criticized for using increasingly aggressive tactics to break up demonstrations but there was a minimal police presence on Sunday and no arrests were made. More than 700 people have been arrested since June.

Lam said the police watchdog had set up a task force to investigate complaints.

She said she hoped Hong Kong had “unique advantages in attracting overseas companies”, stressing the rule of law, but warned of the risk of pressure on the economy which shrank 0.4% in April-June from the previous quarter.

“The Hong Kong economy is facing the risk of downturn. We can see this from the data in the first half. Actually, I think the data in the first half has not fully reflected the seriousness of the problem,” she said.

China has put strong pressure on big companies in Hong Kong over the protests, especially Cathay Pacific Airways. CEO Rupert Hogg quit in a shock move last week after Beijing targeted the airline over staff involvement in the protests.

Hogg’s departure was announced by Chinese state television and was seen as a signal to other multinationals, such as HSBC Holdings and Jardine Matheson Holdings, to support Beijing.

Cathay also fired two pilots for taking part in protests.

China’s State Council called on Monday for greater development of the southern city of Shenzhen and integration of its culture and economy with neighboring Hong Kong and Macau, a former Portuguese-run enclave that returned to China in 1999.

(Reporting by Felix Tam, Clare Jim, Noah Sin, Donny Kwok, Frah Master and Anne Marie Roantree; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Paul Tait)

Trump visits mass shooting victims; protesters shout ‘Do something!’

U.S. President Donald Trump deplanes with first lady Melania Trump arriving aboard Air Force One at El Paso International Airport for a visit with victims and first responders in the wake of last weekend's mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, U.S., August 7, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Jeff Mason

EL PASO, Texas (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump met victims and first responders from last weekend’s deadly shootings in Texas and Ohio on Wednesday, as chanting protesters accused him of inflaming tensions with anti-immigrant and racially charged rhetoric.

Trump visited hospitals where victims were treated in El Paso, Texas, on the border with Mexico, and in Dayton, Ohio, after massacres 13 hours apart that shocked the country and reopened a national debate on gun safety.

In both cities, crowds of protesters gathered to confront Trump and condemn his visit. Some held signs reading “Trump is racist,” “Love over hate” and “Send him back!”

Chanting crowds in Dayton urged Trump: “Do something!”

The president and first lady Melania Trump avoided the press on both hospital visits and stayed out of public view.

They visited survivors in their hospital rooms at the University Medical Center in El Paso and Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, and thanked the medical staff and first responders, White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said.

“It was a warm and wonderful visit,” Trump said on Twitter after leaving Dayton. “Tremendous enthusiasm & even Love.”

A pro-Trump demonstrator holds a placard outside the University Medical Center, where U.S. President Donald Trump holds a meeting with first responders in the wake of last weekend's mass shootings at a Walmart store, in El Paso, Texas, U.S., August 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

A pro-Trump demonstrator holds a placard outside the University Medical Center, where U.S. President Donald Trump holds a meeting with first responders in the wake of last weekend’s mass shootings at a Walmart store, in El Paso, Texas, U.S., August 7, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

Trump also visited law enforcement personnel at an emergency operations center in El Paso to thank them for their response on Saturday, when a man killed 22 people at a Walmart store, apparently after posting an anti-immigrant manifesto online.

In Dayton, nine people and the suspect were killed in a rampage early on Sunday.

“The job you have done is incredible,” Trump told gathered officers and staff. “I wanted to come and thank you.”

Before leaving Washington, Trump said that in the wake of the shootings he wanted to strengthen background checks for gun purchases and make sure mentally ill people did not carry guns. He predicted congressional support for those two measures but not for Democratic efforts to ban assault rifles.

“I can tell you that there is no political appetite for that at this moment,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “But I will certainly bring that up … There is a great appetite, and I mean a very strong appetite, for background checks.”

Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley and U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, both Democrats, accompanied Trump in Dayton and told reporters they urged him to call on Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to bring the Senate back from its summer recess to work on a House-passed bill that expands background checks on gun buyers.

Brown said he asked Trump to promise he would sign that bill. “He only said that we will get things done,” Brown said, adding the president had been “comforting” to the victims.

Whaley said she agreed with Trump’s decision not to visit the district where the shooting occurred given the high emotions in the community.

‘NOT INTERESTED’

“A lot of people that own businesses in that district are not interested in the president being there,” she said. “A lot of the time his talk can be very divisive and that’s the last thing we need in Dayton.”

Trump later criticized the two Democrats for their comments, saying on Twitter the news conference they held was “a fraud. It bore no resemblance to what took place.”

Trump told reporters at the El Paso operations center the two Democrats “should not be politicking today.”

Democrats say Trump’s anti-immigrant, racially charged language at rallies and on Twitter has fanned racist, white nationalist sentiments, creating a political climate that is conducive to hate-based violence.

The massacre in the predominantly Hispanic city of El Paso is being investigated as a hate crime and act of domestic terrorism, authorities said. The FBI said the Dayton shooter also explored violent ideologies.

An open letter to Trump on Wednesday in the El Paso Times described the border city as having “a deep tradition of racial harmony” whose people came together after the tragedy. It admonished Trump for calling El Paso one of the country’s most dangerous cities in his February State of the Union address.

“He’s going to make war between us. Racism is starting to pop up more and more. Mexican people are fed up. He’s going to create chaos around here,” said Fernando Montoya, 45, who joined the protesters at a park in El Paso.

On Monday, Trump gave a speech focusing on mental health reforms, tighter internet regulation and wider use of the death penalty. Democrats accused Trump of hiding behind talk of mental illness and the influence of social media rather than committing to laws to restrict gun ownership.

In Iowa, Democratic presidential front-runner Joe Biden said Trump had “fanned the flames” of white supremacy.

“We have a president with a toxic tongue who has publicly and unapologetically embraced a political strategy of hate, racism, and division,” the former vice president said.

Former Texas congressman and El Paso native Beto O’Rourke, another 2020 presidential contender, said Trump “helped create the hatred that made Saturday’s tragedy possible” and thus “has no place here.”

Asked on MSNBC on Wednesday if Trump is a white supremacist, O’Rourke said: “He is. He’s also made that very clear.”

U.S. Representative Veronica Escobar, a Democrat whose congressional district includes El Paso, declined a White House invitation to join Trump in the city and said that the president “is not welcome here.”

“Members of our community, Hispanics and Mexicans and immigrants, have been dehumanized. That’s the bottom line: we’ve been dehumanized by the president and by his words,” she told the protest rally in El Paso.

Not everyone agreed that Trump should stay away.

“This is not a political visit,” El Paso Mayor Dee Margo told reporters. “He is president of the United States. So in that capacity, I will fulfill my obligations as mayor of El Paso to meet with the president and discuss whatever our needs are in this community.”

(Additional reporting by Nandita Bose, Rich McKay, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington, Barbara Goldberg in New York, Daniel Trotta in El Paso; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Howard Goller, Alistair Bell and Sonya Hepinstall)

China warns Hong Kong protesters not to ‘play with fire’

A demonstrator throws a traffic cone at a group of people opposing the anti-government protesters, during a demonstration in support of the city-wide strike and to call for democratic reforms in Hong Kong, China, August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Cate Cadell

BEIJING (Reuters) – Protesters in Hong Kong must not “play with fire” and mistake Beijing’s restraint for weakness, China said on Tuesday in its sharpest rebuke yet of the “criminals” behind demonstrations in the city whom it vowed to bring to justice.

Hong Kong has suffered weeks of sometimes violent protests that began with opposition to a now-suspended extradition law, which would have allowed suspects to be tried in mainland courts.

But the protests have swelled into a broader backlash against the government of the Asian financial hub, fueled by many residents’ fear of eroding freedoms under the increasingly tight control of the Communist Party in Beijing.

“I would like to warn all of the criminals: don’t ever misjudge the situation and mistake our restraint for weakness,” the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said in a document issued during a briefing in Beijing.

A small group of violent radicals were at the forefront of the protests, with “some kind-hearted citizens who have been misguided and coerced to join,” according to the document attributed to two officials, Yang Guang and Xu Luying.

It said anti-China forces were the “behind-the-scenes masterminds” who had “openly and brazenly emboldened” the protesters.

“We would like to make clear to the very small group of unscrupulous and violent criminals and the dirty forces behind them: those who play with fire will perish by it,” the office said.

“At the end of the day, they will eventually be punished.”

China has been quick to label U.S. officials as “black hands” instigating unrest in Hong Kong in an attempt to contain China’s development, but it has not provided any concrete evidence.

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers on Friday urged the Trump administration to suspend future sales of munitions and crowd-control equipment to Hong Kong police, which have been accused of using excessive force.

Police on Monday fired tear gas at protesters in the former British colony after a general strike hit transport and the city’s Beijing-backed leader, chief executive Carrie Lam, warned its prosperity was at risk.

The protests surpassed earlier shows of dissent in scale and intensity, seemingly stoked by Lam’s refusal once again to meet any of the protesters’ demands, including for her resignation and independent inquiries into police use of force.

The protests are the greatest political threat to Hong Kong’s government since the territory returned to Chinese rule in 1997, and one of the biggest popular challenges to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

‘CIVILIZED POWER’

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Hong Kong has remained in barracks since the protests started in April, leaving Hong Kong’s police force to deal with the massive demonstrations.

Last week, the PLA garrison there issued a video showing “anti-riot” exercises, and its top brass warned violence is “absolutely impermissible”.

Diplomats and foreign security analysts are watching the situation closely, but believe there’s little appetite in Beijing for the PLA to be deployed on the streets of Hong Kong.

So far, the central government and the PLA have said only that there are clear provisions in law covering the prospect of the force’s intervention in the city.

During the briefing, Yang called the PLA “a strong force that defends every inch of its sacred territory”, and said the central government would not allow any “turbulence” beyond the control of the Hong Kong government to threaten national unity or security.

“The PLA is a force of power but also a civilized power,” Yang said.

“As long as it has the strong support of the central government and the Chinese people, the Hong Kong government and police “are fully capable of punishing those criminal activities and restoring public order and stability”, he said.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell; writing by Michael Martina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Darren Schuettler)

Protesters clash in Hong Kong as cycle of violence intensifies

Protesters clash with riot police during a protest against police violence during previous marches, near China's Liaison Office, Hong Kong, China July 28, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By James Pomfret and Simon Gardner

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police clashed with thousands of protesters on Sunday, as they sought to defend China’s main representative office from crowds seething over what many see as an increasing cycle of violence against them.

Protests over the past two months spearheaded by anti-government activists against a proposed bill that would allow people to be extradited from the city to stand trial in courts in mainland China have grown increasingly violent.

A march on Saturday against an assault the previous weekend by suspected triad gang members ended in violent turmoil as riot police waded in to disperse crowds.

On Sunday, a peaceful gathering in a park in the city’s central business district rapidly morphed into a march, as tens of thousands of black-clad protesters set off in several directions, clogging up major thoroughfares.

Thousands of people headed east, toward the shopping district of Causeway Bay, while another large contingent headed west, toward the Chinese government’s representative office, known as the Central Government Liaison Office.

There, hundreds of riot police blocked activists from advancing toward the building, which had been heavily fortified with barricades after it was surrounded and defaced a week earlier. A clear plastic shield had been erected around a national emblem above its front doors.

As the crowds surged, hundreds of riot police with shields advanced, firing rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets and sponge grenades – a crowd-control weapon – at protesters, sending clouds of acrid, burning smoke through the streets.

Some protesters were on their knees choking as ambulances raced to take away the injured.

The mostly young activists in hard hats, gas masks and body armor dug in, dismantling street signs and fences which they used to form makeshift barricades to slow police advances.

Many hit metallic surfaces with sticks to create an ominous drumbeat that echoed down the streets.

Pro-democracy protesters march to protest against police violence during previous marches, in central Hong Kong, China July 28, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Pro-democracy protesters march to protest against police violence during previous marches, in central Hong Kong, China July 28, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

“AGE OF REVOLUTION”

China’s Liaison Office, a potent symbol of Beijing’s rule over the city since Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, has become a target for growing ranks of increasingly emboldened youngsters, angry at China’s tightening grip on the city’s freedoms.

Under a “one country, two systems” formula instituted as part of China’s sovereignty, the city was promised wide-ranging freedoms denied citizens in mainland China.

“We call this Hong Kong’s age of revolution,” said a masked protester who called himself K Lee. “This movement has been sparked by China’s refusal to respect Hong Kong’s freedoms, and the failure of authorities to listen to the people’s voice.”

After multiple weekends of unrest, the protests have continued to draw large and apparently growing ranks of protesters in increasingly violent stand-offs.

Protesters responded to police with bricks, eggs and slingshots, as well as home-made gas canisters and paintballs.

Last Sunday, protesters took police by surprise with a swoop on the Liaison Office, scrawling graffiti and throwing paint bombs at walls, the national emblem and a plaque. Chinese officials described the vandalism as an attack on China’s sovereignty that would not be tolerated.

“I have no words for Xi Jinping, he is very arrogant in his belief in communism,” said a university student who called herself Miss Ho, referring to the Chinese president. “He is taking away our freedom, and that is something we cannot bear.”

China denies interfering in Hong Kong and has warned that the violent protests over the proposed legislation allowing extraditions to mainland China were an “undisguised challenge to the formula under which it is ruled.

‘STOP VIOLENCE’

Many of the marchers on Sunday chanted slogans against the police. Some held banners reading: “We rise as one, we fight as one” and “Stop violence”.

The protests have brought the most serious political crisis to Hong Kong since it returned to China, and have posed an increasingly delicate national security headache for China’s Xi at a time of trade tensions with the United States and a slowing Chinese economy.

What began as a movement to oppose the extradition law has taken on broader demands. They include the resignation of Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader Carrie Lam, calls for full democracy and an independent inquiry into what some say has been excessive police force against protesters.

Lam has so far refused to accede to any of the demands.

The protesters appeared to be getting more organized and willing to use violence to achieve their aims. On Sunday, activists said they hoped to stretch the police by splitting their marches.

“The police usually surround us and we have nowhere to go. So we adjust our strategy this time. This is much more fluid and flexible,” protester Edward Ng said.

As riot police advanced at the end of the night from several fronts, the protesters, hemmed in and unable to see a way out, began streaming down into the Sheung Wan underground metro station.

The black-clad protesters clambered onto and filled a passenger train, chanting “Free Hong Kong. Age of Revolution”, in an orderly retreat. Many changed out of their black shirts, then changed trains, and vanished into the night.

(Additional reporting by Felix Tam and Sijia Jiang; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Robert Birsel, Janet Lawrence and Dale Hudson)

Chinese official urged Hong Kong villagers to drive off protesters before violence at train station

FILE PHOTO: Men in white T-shirts and carrying poles talk to riot police in Yuen Long after attack on anti-extradition bill demonstrators at a train station in Hong Kong, China, July 22, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

By James Pomfret, Greg Torode and David Lague

HONG KONG (Reuters) – A week before suspected triad gang members attacked protesters and commuters at a rural Hong Kong train station last Sunday, an official from China’s representative office urged local residents to drive away any activists.

Li Jiyi, the director of the Central Government Liaison’s local district office made the appeal at a community banquet for hundreds of villagers in Hong Kong’s rural New Territories.

A front view of the village of Nam Pin Wai, where groups of suspected attackers at the Yuen Long train station were surrounded by police, in Hong Kong, China July 23, 2019. REUTERS/James Pomfret

A front view of the village of Nam Pin Wai, where groups of suspected attackers at the Yuen Long train station were surrounded by police, in Hong Kong, China July 23, 2019. REUTERS/James Pomfret

In a previously unreported recording from the July 11 event obtained by Reuters, Li addresses the large crowd about the escalating protests that have plunged Hong Kong into its worst political crisis since it returned to Chinese from British rule in 1997.

Li chastises the protesters, appealing to the assembled residents to protect their towns in Yuen Long district and to chase anti-government activists away.

“We won’t allow them to come to Yuen Long to cause trouble,” he said, to a burst of applause.

“Even though there are a group of protesters trained to throw bricks and iron bars, we still have a group of Yuen Long residents with the persistence and courage to maintain social peace and protect our home.”

Repeatedly, Li spoke of the need for harmony and unity between the traditional villages and the government, “especially when there is wind and rain in Hong Kong”.

The banquet was attended by a Hong Kong government district officer, Enoch Yuen, and many of the city’s rural leaders.

Responding to Reuters’ questions to Yuen, a spokesman for the Yuen Long district office said it had no comment on the remarks of other speakers.

“District offices would relay local information and concerns gathered to other departments, as appropriate,” he added.

Last Sunday, after anti-government protesters marched in central Hong Kong and defaced China’s Liaison Office, over 100 men swarmed through Yuen Long train station, attacking black-clad protesters, passers-by, journalists and a lawmaker with pipes, clubs and lampstands.

When some protesters retaliated, the beatings escalated as men and women were hit repeatedly on their heads and bodies by the masked men, who wore white shirts.

Video footage showed victims fleeing the mayhem amid screams, and floors of the train station streaked with blood. Forty-five people were injured, one critically.

China’s Liaison Office did not immediately respond to Reuters questions about Li’s speech, and Li could not be reached for comment.

Johnny Mak, a veteran Democratic Alliance district councilor in Yuen Long who witnessed the train station bloodshed, said he believed Li’s remarks had been an explicit call to arms against protesters.

“If he didn’t say this, the violence wouldn’t have happened, and the triads wouldn’t have beaten people,” he told Reuters in his office close to the station.

Ching Chan-ming, the head of the Shap Pat Heung rural committee which hosted the banquet that night, said he thought Li’s speech was positive and held no malicious intent.

“How could he (Li) make such an appeal like that?,” Ching told Reuters. “I don’t think it was a mobilization call. His main message is that he hopes Hong Kong can remain stable and prosperous.”

TRIADS

The protesters are demanding Hong Kong’s leader scrap a controversial extradition law that many fear will extend China’s reach into the city.

The government’s refusal to do so – it has agreed only to suspend the bill so far – have led to two months of sometimes violent demonstrations across the city.

Beyond the extradition bill, many activists are demanding independent inquiries into the use of police force against them, and far-reaching democratic reforms – anathema to Beijing’s leaders.

China’s Foreign Ministry Office in Hong Kong said earlier this week that “the recent extreme and violent acts in Hong Kong have seriously undermined the foundation of the rule of law … and trampled on the red line of “One Country, Two Systems” which underpins Beijing’s control of Hong Kong.

Two senior police sources told Reuters some of the men who attacked the protesters had triad backgrounds including from the powerful Wo Shing Wo, Hong Kong’s oldest triad society, and the 14K, another large, well-known triad.

Police spokespeople didn’t respond to Reuters questions about triad involvement or any aspect of their operation that night.

While Hong Kong’s triads – ancient secret societies that morphed into mafia-style underworld operations – no longer hold the high profile of previous decades they remain entrenched in some grittier districts and in rural areas, according to police.

Police told reporters in 2014 during the so-called “Occupy” democracy protests, that hundreds of triad members were suspected of mounting operations to infiltrate, beat and harass those in the movement. Several dozen people were arrested at the time.

NO POLICE IN SIGHT

Within hours of Sunday’s violence, police bosses battled criticism they had failed to protect the public given delays getting to the scene.

Police commissioner Stephen Lo said there had been a need to “redeploy manpower from other districts”.

Democratic Party district councilor Zachary Wong said Li’s message was having an impact in the days leading up to Sunday’s violence and he had received repeated calls from associates a day earlier saying something was brewing.

Wong said he called local police on Saturday, and then again on Sunday at 7pm when he heard of men gathering in a Yuen Long park.

“Some people called me and said, ‘We’re really scared, please do something,” Wong told Reuters.

Both Mak and Wong said they were told by police they were aware of the situation and were handling it.

During this time, pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho was filmed laughing and shaking hands with some of the men in white shirts near the park. Giving them the ‘thumbs up’ sign, he said: “You are my heroes”. The men laughed and cheered in response.

Ho later told reporters he had no knowledge of or involvement in the violence but was merely reaching out to his constituents.

Ho was not immediately available at his office and could not be reached on his mobile telephone.

Several hours later, when the most violent assaults took place at the train station, there were still no police present to prevent the bloodshed.

“It doesn’t make sense that for many hours, there wasn’t a single police car in sight,” said Mak.

Two senior police officers involved in controlling demonstrations and a senior government security official told Reuters privately they were incensed at public perceptions the police somehow acted in concert with triads at Yuen Long.

After the attacks in Yuen Long train station, some of the assailants fled to the traditional walled village of Nam Pin Wai nearby.

There, riot police and other officers surrounded and questioned scores of men in white shirts for several hours, live media coverage showed.

Sometime after 4 a.m., the men in white began to leave. No arrests were made at the time, although a dozen men have since been arrested, police said in a statement.

A police commander told reporters at the scene that no arrests were made as the police could not prove the men were the assailants, and no weapons were found.

Public anger over the incident has built in the days since, and tens of thousands of people are expected to march through Yuen Long on Saturday.

A rare open letter signed by a group of civil servants criticized authorities’ handling of the violence.

“The police’s lack of response on July 21 had made people suspect the government colluded with triads,” wrote a group of 235 civil servants from 44 government departments, including the police force.

“This had not only caused citizens to lose confidence in the police, but also made civil servants suspect that the government departments are not aimed to serve citizens faithfully.”

At a news conference, Police Commissioner Lo denied any collusion between his force and triads but acknowledged the need to restore public confidence.

(Additional reporting by Jessie Pang, Felix Tam and Vimvam Tong; Editing by Lincoln Feast)