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Dozens injured after police storm Hong Kong shopping mall, pursue protesters

A protester holds a placard against the Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam during a demonstration as thousands of anti-government protesters marched and rallied to the West Kowloon High Speed Railway Station to demand the Hong Kong government to withdraw the extradition bill and to set up an independent commission to investigate police brutality. (Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/Zuma Press/TNS)
July 16, 2019

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

Dozens of people were sent to hospital and dozens more were arrested during clashes on Sunday between police and anti-extradition protesters at a shopping mall in surburban Hong Kong, with seven people still receiving treatment for their injuries.

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 medical treatment on Monday, after police arrested more than 40 people on suspicion of public order charges that included “illegal assembly,” as well as alleged assaults on police officers.

Meanwhile, several hundred people marched alongside more than a dozen hunger strikers—two of whom have gone 12 days without food to protest plans to allow extradition to mainland China—on a march to chief executive Carrie Lam’s residence in downtown Hong Kong.

The hunger strikers 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.

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 protests against the amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance in recent weeks.

Taking to the streets

Huge numbers of anti-extradition protesters, including families with young children and babies, took to the streets of Shatin on Sunday in the latest in a string of protests calling for withdrawal of the amendments, an amnesty for arrestees, an end to the description of protesters as “rioters.”

They have also called for an independent public inquiry into the authorities’ handling of the political crisis that has gripped Hong Kong since June 9.

By the evening, after the main march had ended, a huge crowd had gathered at the intersection of Yuen Wo Road and the Shatin Rural Committee Road, with police “kettling” protesters by surrounding them on all sides, forcing them into a nearby street.

Pro-democracy lawmakers at the scene tried to negotiate with police, who used similar tactics on protesters in the working-class district of Mong Kok last week, asking them to allow the crowd enough room to leave.

But police in full riot gear pursued a section of the crowd into nearby New Town Plaza, a privately owned and glitzy shopping mall, after they sought refuge there.

Police used pepper spray, and some protesters fought back, with some throwing umbrellas and other debris from higher floors on the heads of officers, who went to hunt them down, giving rise to chaotic images of scuffles and beatings with batons that left traces of blood on the marble flooring.

Police goals unclear

Civil Rights Observer group member Shum Wai-nam said it was unclear what the police had hoped to achieve from their kettling of protesters and storming of New Town Plaza.

“The thing that left everyone baffled was whether the police’s action yesterday was [intended as] a dispersal action or a round-up,” Shum told RFA. “On the one hand they wanted the protesters to leave, but in actual fact a large number had already left the area they were clearing.”

“Then, when the protesters had gone into New Town Plaza, was there any need to chase and arrest them in there?” he said. “That round-up escalated the situation and worsened the clashes.”

Police commissioner Stephen Lo said police had chased the protesters into the mall because they were in pursuit of people who had broken the law.

As protesters marched in Shatin, around 1,000 journalists and their supporters marched silently to police headquarters under the slogan “Stop Police Violence, Defend Press Freedom,” in protest at what they said were abuses of police power targeting members of the press covering the recent protests.

“During the recent series of protests, journalists were unjustifiably dispersed, pushed away, verbally insulted, or even beaten by batons, [and] shot by bean bag rounds by police officers [on] a number of occasions,” Chris Yeung, president of march organizers the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association (HKJA) told the rally.

Attacks on police

Lam, meanwhile, defended her administration’s use of the word “rioters” to describe anti-extradition protesters.

“Some people surrounded police officers and mounted seriously violent and crazed attacks on them, including the use of wooden sticks and various other weapons,” she told a news conference on Monday.

“There was one incident that everyone can see from the TV footage in which a police officer was kicked down from an escalator and fell into the main lobby, to be chased by 10 or 20 rioters who mounted a crazed attack on him.”

“We saw that the violent attacks on police officers were very well organized, with slogans, hand signals, supply lines. This was planned. They deliberately blocked roads and disrupted public order,” she said.

However, organized actions including slogans, hand signals and supply lines have been a feature of peaceful anti-extradition protests for several weeks.

“Time and again, the police were attacked by rioters, and I think we really can describe them as rioters,” Lam told a news conference in Hong Kong on Monday.

“There was an initial, peaceful demonstration, and when that was over, some people started to riot deliberately,” she said. “We strongly condemn anyone who uses violence to protest, and who hurts our police force.”

‘A pack of wolves’

But Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung said that police had chased protesters into the mall “like a pack of wolves,” beating them indiscriminately and firing pepper spray at them, government broadcaster RTHK reported.

Chung Kim-wah, assistant professor of social policy at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, said blame for the clashes should be laid firmly at the feet of Lam’s administration for refusing to accede to protesters’ demands.

“They refuse to discuss total withdrawal [of the bill] … which leaves people thinking they are just unwilling to admit their own mistake,” Chung said.

“A lot of people are talking about an independent public inquiry now, which wouldn’t focus on the police, but on every aspect [of the crisis]. But the government is refusing, because it thinks the anti-government protests will run out of steam,” he said.

Chung said the government’s intransigence has affected public support for Lam’s administration.

“I think that the majority of Hong Kong people are now extremely unhappy with the political establishment, the chief executive and the police right now: the sense of opposition is very strong,” he said.

“If they were to announce the bill was formally withdrawn and set up an independent inquiry led by lawmakers, I think that would ease public anger, even if it didn’t entirely meet the five demands of the protesters,” Chung said.

“Maybe the protests would die down a bit then, with not so many people coming out, and that would make dialogue easier.”

Threat to status

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, two systems” framework under which the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997.

If they become law, the city could lose its status as a separate legal jurisdiction 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 all rejected 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.

Reported by RFA’s Cantonese Service by Lau Siu-fung and Lee Wang-yam for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Lu Xi for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.