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Hong Kong protesters build barricades, set fire to railway station amid anger over virus

Pro-democracy demonstrators retreat as police advance in on their position, in Hong Kong, on Oct. 1, 2019. (Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times/TNS)
February 17, 2020

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

Protesters in Hong Kong returned to the streets at the weekend amid growing public anger over the city authorities’ handling of the coronavirus epidemic, with one group setting fire to a railway station and another damaging a local clinic.

The protesters occupied Tin Sau Road in Tin Shui Wai district and built barricades with rubbish bins, wooden boards, foam boxes and debris to block multi-lane highways, the government said on Sunday.

The demonstrations came after a group of people set fire to a ticket machine inside Tin Sau Light Rail (LRT) station on Saturday.

“They even poured suspected flammable liquid onto the blaze,” the government said in a statement, adding that some protesters threw trash cans onto a track while a train was passing through in the other direction.

Riot police were dispatched to the scene, surrounded around 20 black-clad protesters and ordering them to remove their masks and show their ID, firing pepper spray at them. At least 14 people were arrested. The government said the incident happened after an earlier, peaceful demonstration had ended.

Riot police also gathered in Fo Tan, in the New Territories, along with an armored vehicle and a water cannon, ahead of a planned demonstration on Saturday afternoon.

Another group marched in Tai Po against plans to use the local Tai Po Jockey Club primary care clinic into a center for “mild” COVID-19 cases, chanting slogans calling on the government to close down the city’s border with mainland China.

They told reporters that there had been no consultation with local residents about the clinic before the plan was announced.

Growing anger with Lam

While people arriving from mainland China are required to undergo a 14-day period of quarantine, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has stopped short of shutting down the border entirely, saying it is “discriminatory.”

Hundreds of people marched in separate protests in Kwai Chung, Tin Shui Wai and Cheung Sha Wan over plans by the government to designate clinics across the city for the treatment of “mild cases” of COVID-19, to ease the expected pressure on hospitals.

Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority also issued a statement saying that the Jockey Club General Outpatient Clinic on Ting Kok Road in Tai Po has been “maliciously damaged” several times.

It said the incident had disrupted patient care, and police were investigating.

The unrest came amid growing public anger with Lam’s administration over her refusal to close the border with mainland China, which reported a total of 69,507 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Sunday, and a death toll of 1,596.

The Hong Kong authorities confirmed on Sunday that they will be chartering a free evacuation flight to bring home Hong Kong residents currently aboard the cruise ship Diamond Princess, which is currently quarantined in Japan.

“[The Hong Kong] government is arranging a chartered flight to take Hong Kong residents under quarantine on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship back to Hong Kong free of charge soonest possible after they are permitted to disembark and land,” a security bureau spokesman said.

There are around 330 Hong Kong residents on board the vessel, 260 of whom hold a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region passport and around 70 of whom are foreign nationals permanently resident in the city.

Critic Xu incommunicado

Japan announced another 70 infections had been confirmed on the Diamond Princess on Sunday. Canada, the United States and Italy said they were planning similar flights.

Plans by Lam to make amendments to Hong Kong’s laws that would allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China sparked mass street protests that began in June, soon followed by widespread public anger at police use of force against peaceful demonstrators.

Lam formally withdrew the hated amendments, but faces protesters’ demands for an amnesty for those arrested in the 2019 protests, an independent public inquiry into police violence and abuse of power, an end to the description of protesters as “rioters,” and fully democratic elections.

Chinese state media revealed on Saturday evening that President Xi Jinping had had much more of a hand in directing the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s response to the epidemic, sending out instructions to local officials, four of whom have since been fired, as earlier as Jan. 7, weeks before the public was warned that the virus is transmissible between people.

The news emerged as Chinese professor Xu Zhangrun was reported incommunicado after publishing a lengthy critique of Xi’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Xu’s account has been suspended on the social media platform WeChat, and friends have been unable to get in touch with him for days, The Guardian reported.

“Most believe he has not been detained, and is at home in Beijing, but his name has been scrubbed from Weibo, and only a few articles from several years ago showing up on the country’s biggest search engine, Baidu,” the paper said.

Xu’s essay, title “Viral Alarm: When Fury Overcomes Fear,” was published last week.

His “disappearance” comes amid a public outcry over the death on Feb. 7 of Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, who was accused of rumor-mongering by police after he tried to warn people about the severity of the new outbreak in his city. Li eventually caught the virus himself and died of it.