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Crowds protest at Hong Kong shopping mall that let riot police inside

Thousands of protesters surround the police headquarter in Hong Kong on June 21, 2019. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images/TNS)
July 17, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Hundreds of people converged on a shopping mall in suburban Hong Kongon Tuesday in a spontaneous protest to its management after staff allowed riot police to pursue, beat up and arrest unarmed anti-extradition protesters in the privately owned facility on Sunday.

Shouting “Shame on Sun Hung Kai!” the crowd gathered at the information desk in New Town Plaza — which is owned by Sun Hung Kai Properties — in the New Territories town of Shatin.

Protesters were demanding an explanation from management for thedecision, which enabled police to beat up protesters who had been “kettled” by police and who were trying to leave following a mass protest on the street outside.

The ensuing violence left dozens of people injured, and traces of blood all over the marble floor of the glitzy mall.

Several ambulances were called by staff of the mall, who reported feeling unwell as the crowd began to swell, and who were escorted away by ambulance crew, leaving the information desk unstaffed.

Protesters then left written messages with sticky notes on the desk, turning it into a temporary “Lennon Wall” of the kind that have mushroomed across the city after weeks of mass protests against plans by the Hong Kong government to allow extradition to mainland China.

A group of 19 Shatin District Councillors plan to file a complaint to the police over what they say were “violent” tactics in the hours after an anti-extradition march in the New Territories town on Sunday.

Violent clashes erupted after police officers in riot gear pursued anti-extradition bill protesters into the popular New Town Plaza shopping mall, blocking them from leaving. MTR trains stopped operating from the adjacent Shatin station leaving protesters, and any shoppers who were trapped in the mall, with nowhere to go.

The renewed protest–which ended peacefully with no police presence–came as Shatin district councillors said they would discuss policeresponsibility behind Sunday‘s violence.

“We urge all the Shatin residents to come to the meeting and to focus on the abuse of power and the measures used by the police force and their violent beating of the residents, using the shield and using the baton in this plaza,” district councillor Wong Hok-lai of the Shatin Community Network told government broadcaster RTHK.

‘Illegal assemby’

Around 28 protesters and more than 10 police officers were injured after police in full riot gear stormed New Town Plaza in the New Territories town of Shatin, where they “kettled” protesters and prevented them from leaving on foot or by train, according to live video feeds and social media posts from the scene.

Seven protesters and six police officers were still receiving medicaltreatment on Monday, after police arrested more than 40 people onsuspicion of public order charges that included “illegal assembly,” as well as alleged assaults on police officers.

The Shatin protests came amid media reports that the administration ofchief executive Carrie Lam is studying ways to put an end to the string of mass, spontaneous protests in recent weeks, using Article 17 of Hong Kong’s Public Security Ordinance enabling the government to ban protests in certain places and at certain times, or to order a curfew.

The government said no changes in policy were in the pipeline, however.

“With regard to public processions and meetings, the government willcontinue to follow the existing mechanism requiring notification to the police and the Letter of No Objection,” the Security Bureau said in a statement.

“Apart from this, the Government has no other plans,” the statement said.

Hong Kong current affairs commentator Liu Ruishao said the last time such measures were imposed was during the 1967 conflict between Beijing-based communists and police.

“The martial law that was imposed at [that time] was due to the fact that [Hong Kong] had already been affected by leftist violence in the past, and the level of lethal violence was much higher than it is today,” Liu said.

“Everyone can see that protecting yourself using an umbrella isn’t the same as using an offensive weapon,” he said. “Even if some iron bars and bricks have been found, they are few and far between, so we are a long way from needing martial law.”

The British colonial government imposed emergency regulations on HongKong, giving the police special powers and shutting down leftistnewspapers and schools, and arresting and deporting leftist leaders, a move that sparked a wave of home-made bombs that killed and maimed ordinary civilians, including young children.

Not the same as 1967

Journalist Ching Cheong said the government crackdown had a hugeamount of public support in 1967.

“If the Hong Kong government were to impose emergency measures now,the general public would be against them … so it is very doubtful that they would be able to implement such measures successfully,” Ching said.

“The situation is completely different from that of 1967,” he said.

But pro-China lawmaker Ann Chiang called on police to refuse to issueletters of “no objection”.

“For every application for demonstrations, if they believe that there the likelihood of trouble, or threats to public order and safety, they should balance the rights of individuals against the interests of the whole of society,” Chiang said.

“They should consider saying no for a while, rather than agreeing to it and then deciding that it was risky after the fact,” she said.

But Civic Party lawmaker Au Nok-hin said such a decision would betantamount to abolishing the right to peaceful protest and assembly, as enshrined in the city’s Basic Law and international human rights treaties.

“The Hong Kong police already don’t like people gathering, so this would give them the opportunity to say it was an illegal assembly,” Au said. “Why are people so concerned about getting a letter of no objection in the first place?”

“We have the right to peaceful assembly anyway, and civil society hasalways been on the front line of protecting that right,” he said.

Protesters are calling on Lam to formally withdraw amendments tabled to the Legislative Council that would allow the rendition of alleged criminal suspects from Hong Kong to face criminal proceedings in mainland China.

PRC-Hong Kong legal firewall at risk

Critics say the move would undermine the legal “firewall” between two very different political and judicial systems and likely call into question Hong Kong’s status as a separate trading port.

They also want an amnesty for anyone arrested during mass protestsagainst the amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance in recentweeks.

The amendments are widely seen as a threat to Hong Kong’s way of life,which was supposed to have been protected by the “one country, twosystems” framework under which the former British colony was handedback to China in 1997.

If they become law, the city could lose its status as a separate legaljurisdiction and trading entity, while journalists, visitors, rights activists, dissidents, democratic politicians, and members of the business community could be targeted for words and actions deemed illegal by Chinese officials.

They could also be extradited to face trial in Chinese courts, which are directly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Students, march organizers, and pro-democracy lawmakers have allrejected Lam’s attempt at initiating discussions, demanding instead that she first declare an amnesty for all those arrested in connection with recent protests, drop allegations of “rioting” used by police and some officials, and formally withdraw the planned amendments before the end of the current LegCo term in 2020, rather than just claiming that they will automatically lapse at that time.

Protesters also want an independent public inquiry into police use of tear gas, rubber and textile bullets, pepper spray, and batons during the anti-extradition campaign, especially during protests on June 12.

Lam has said the amendments are “dead” and will expire at the end of the current term of the Legislative Council in 2020, but campaigners say her assertion offers no legal guarantees.

She has apologized for the government’s handling of the amendments, but has repeatedly said she won’t step down.

Joseph Cheng, former politics professor at City University, said Beijing would likely be very reluctant to let her go.

“The leadership in Beijing really doesn’t want to see Carrie Lam step down under public pressure,” Cheng said. “This could have a knock-on effect on mainland Chinese cities. Is any city in which a large crowd of local residents turned out in protest then going to see the resignation of its mayor or [ruling Chinese] Communist Party secretary?”

Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Han Jie for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.