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Hong Kong’s leader ‘doesn’t rule out’ asking for China to intervene in protests

Thousands of protesters surround the police headquarter in Hong Kong on June 21, 2019. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images/TNS)
October 09, 2019

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

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that her administration hasn’t ruled out asking the ruling Chinese Communist Party for help to deal with mass street protests that have gripped the city since June.

“I cannot tell you categorically now under what circumstances that we will do extra things including your inquiry about calling on the central government to help, which of course is provided for under the Basic Law,” Lam told journalists. “At this point in time, I still strongly feel that we should find the solutions ourselves. That is also the position of the Central Government, that Hong Kong should tackle the problem on her own.”

“But if the situation becomes so bad, then no options could be ruled out,” Lam said. She responded to questions over the enforceability of the mask ban, which was passed by Lam and her cabinet, the Executive Council (ExCo) last week under emergency powers contained in colonial-era legislation.

“If a piece of legislation has been enacted, but people refuse to abide by the law, then we have a problem,” Lam said.

Meanwhile, Lam’s administration issued a denial of reports that it is planning to build a police “tactical training” facility near the notorious San Uk Ling Detention Center near the border with mainland China.

“In response to rumours on the Internet that the Government plans to construct a police base near San Uk Ling for counter-terrorism, a Government spokesman today clarified that the Government does not have such a plan,” the government said in a statement. “The claims are totally unfounded.”

Concerns had arisen after the government submitted documents to the Legislative Council (LegCo) finance committee earlier this year that described a massive land-leveling project to make way for a police training center close to San Uk Ling, where many detained protesters have complained of being abused and tortured while in police detention.

The project was allocated H.K.$1.9 billion in funding, and construction is due to begin in November, according to documents made public on the LegCo website.

The documents were submitted in February, a few weeks after a delegation from the Hong Kong government led by undersecretary for security Au Chi Kwong visited Xinjiang, where authorities are holding more than 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in a vast network of internment camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) since April 2017.

While Beijing initially denied the existence of the camps, China this year changed tack and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization, and help protect the country from terrorism.

Hong Kong government secrecy

Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.

Plans submitted by the Hong Kong government in 2016 indicate a large number of police driving training courses, testing grounds, large-scale shooting ranges, helipads and gun equipment training areas, as well as a “multi-story training building.”

The site is currently undeveloped surrounded by remote hills and barbed wire fencing. A signboard on one fence reads: “Government land, no dumping of waste” and is marked with a logo for the “China Road and Bridge Corporation.”

On August 11, Hong Kong police brought 54 detainees to the San Uk Ling Holding Center, despite it being relatively far from urban areas, the Hong Kong Free Press reported at the time. “Thirty-one of those detained there were later hospitalized, and six were treated for fractured bones, raising concerns about potential abuse at the site,” it said.

But the government said police had “rejected the unfounded allegations,” and denied permission to pro-democracy lawmakers to visit the site.

Signs indicating its location have since been removed from a nearby highway, a private tour guide surname Tam told journalists who went there privately last month.

That group was stopped 100 meters away from the entrance to the site by police guards. The center is surrounded by 10-meter walls with barbed wire and several watch towers, and is guarded by police with rifles. Cell blocks accommodate from 200-250 detainees.

The facility was built under British colonial rule after the closure of the borders between Hong Kong and mainland China in 1951, Tam said.

It has been used to house illegal immigrants and mass arrested detainees during civil unrest.

“Its main role has been to send illegal immigrants from China back to the mainland,” Tam said. “In addition, after the June 4th incident in 1989, some democracy activists crossed the border secretly into Hong Kong through the underground railroad, and were detained here while waiting for their cases to be reviewed, and then traveled on to the United States, Germany and other places.”

Many detainees ‘still fearful’

On August 5, some of the people arrested outside the Tin Shui Wai police station became the first batch of anti-extradition protesters to be held at San Uk Ling Holding Centre, the Hong Kong Free Press reported.

“San Uk Ling has caught our attention because 54 demonstrators were sent to this place on Aug. 11, 31 of whom needed to be sent to hospital, six of them with serious fractures,” Tam said. “A nurse from the North District Hospital said that one of injured’s hand bones were almost completely crushed, and only the flesh and blood were connected.”

“There is one more thing: some lawyers have been there, but they were delayed for 10 hours before they could meet their clients,” he said.

Tam, a local historian and retired teacher, said inmates sleep five to a concrete bed in cells, which are dark. There is no CCTV monitoring anywhere on the site, making it hard to verify reports of abuses and torture.

“There is no light in the cells,” he said. “The demonstrators described not being able to see their own hands in front of their faces … Police had to take their own flashlights to enter the cells.”

Pro-democracy lawmaker Gary Fan said local politicians had visited some of the protesters held in San Uk Ling.

“There are members of the North District Council who went to the North District Hospital to visit the demonstrators who had been detained in San Uk Ling,” he said. “Many people were still fearful, and chose to stay silent, not daring to disclose how they were treated, but actually they had very serious injuries.”

Some detainees did speak out about abuse, describing various kinds of mistreatment, including sexual assault and humiliation. One detainee was abused by two officers after he refused to hand over the password to his smartphone.

Police denied all of the allegations at a press conference on the same day. A spokesman said San Uk Ling had only been used temporarily to handle large number of detainees, and hadn’t been used since Sept. 2.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Au Nok-hin said he had asked government officials back in February what they were planning to build as part of the police “tactical training center” next door to San Uk Ling.

“They have been reluctant to disclose anything,” he said. “Every time I brought up the purpose of the tactical training center, they … answer questions about the construction of the tactical training center, but by the time they’re done we still don’t know what tactics they will be trained in.”

A youth worker from Kazakhstan who has worked with former detainees in Xinjiang’s mass incarceration camps said the training center plans bore some similarity to Chinese “re-education” camps in Xinjiang.