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Hong Kong tempts China's ire as protests take more violent turn

Iain Marlow, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

HONG KONG -- From stick-wielding mobs who attacked activists to one pro-independence group accused of stockpiling explosives, the latest unrest in Hong Kong has prompted new fears that protesters and the China-backed government are heading toward a violent confrontation.

In one case, Hong Kong residents -- many wearing the black shirts favored by protesters -- were attacked in a train station near the mainland border by groups of men wearing white shirts. In a separate episode, police arrested three men after finding volatile explosives and separatist campaign material in a raid on an industrial area.

Elsewhere, police fired tear gas at protesters who had surrounded China's local government headquarters, defaced the national emblem, declared a provisional legislature and spray-painted the exterior with slogans like "Liberate Hong Kong" and "Revolution of our time."

The incidents were part of the seventh consecutive weekend of protests in the former British colony, and illustrate the fact that there is no simple solution to the ongoing political chaos. On Sunday, a peaceful rally of more than 100,000 people devolved into running street battles on opposite sides of the city, and violence continuing to spread into outlying areas.

The developments not only increased the risk that bystanders could be swept into the escalating political disputes, they drew the harshest warnings yet from Beijing, which said that protesters were testing its "bottom line." President Donald Trump on Monday noted that Chinese authorities could stop the protests "if they wanted," and praised counterpart Xi Jinping for acting "responsibly, very responsibly" so far.

"It's definitely a turning point in Hong Kong politics and history," said Alvin Yeung, an opposition lawmaker who heads the city's Civic Party. Yeung noted that Hong Kong, despite years of dissent over Beijing's rule, was one of Asia's safest big cities. "Last night was an exception. And that's why it's so shocking. It's completely out of control," he said.

 

The events showed that positions are hardening on both sides as the city's embattled leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, resists calls to resign despite protests exceeding 1 million participants. What began as a largely leaderless effort to block legislation allowing extraditions to the mainland has expanded into a list of demands including investigations into police tactics to a direct vote to replace Lam.

With more rallies planned for as early as this weekend, and little sign that either side will accede to the others' demands, activists and government supporters alike have been warning that the further unrest could lead to ever greater injuries. A handful of suicides by protesters in recent weeks have already added life-and-death stakes to the debate.

The financial hub is also starting to grapple with the economic cost of continued unrest, which risks keeping local shoppers away and deterring mainland visitors. Last week, police clashed with protesters inside a shopping mall in suburban Sha Tin.

The attacks Sunday on passengers and bystanders at a train station in Yuen Long by unidentified groups of men further raised alarm that the unrest could begin to effect regular people. "Clashes might be expected during a protest, but no one expected the elderly, children, pregnant women and former news reporter that had not joined the protest, might be attacked by pro-Beijing gangs," democracy advocate Joshua Wong told Bloomberg News.

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