A mob of men in white T-shirts clash with pro-democracy protesters on the platform of Yuen Long subway station in Hong Kong on July 21, in this image taken from video. (AFP/Getty Images)

The protests against an extradition law that have been ongoing for seven consecutive weeks in Hong Kong took a violent turn last weekend. A large group of masked men carrying wooden sticks and iron rods began attacking protesters, journalists and passengers indiscriminately at a railway station Sunday night, leaving scores injured.

Who were these 100 or so men in white T-shirts? Thus far, there’s little firm evidence to say exactly who was responsible for the attack. The police made several arrests Monday night, and various news reports have named local triads — Hong Kong’s organized crime gangs.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam publicly denounced the violence. The Hong Kong police force was nowhere to be found during these incidents — leading to complaints by protesters and lawmakers that the police might have implicitly approved the attacks. There is also evidence to suggest that the attacks were orchestrated by pro-Beijing forces — and one pro-Beijing lawmaker reportedly congratulated the attackers for “rightfully defending their homes.”

There’s a history of 'thugs for hire’ in Hong Kong

In 2014, during Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement, unknown gangs from neighboring Guangdong province in China staged a similar attack at a night market, beating up protesters. This practice isn’t unique to Hong Kong, to be sure. Government hiring of thugs or gangsters to deal with dissenters — a move that my research terms “thugs for hire” — is a common phenomenon across many authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regimes, including in Egypt, Syria, Russia and Malaysia.

In mainland China, local governments regularly hire third parties to carry out illegal actions or enforce unpopular policies like land grabs, housing demolition and tax collection — and, under the previous one-child policy, forced sterilization. Why do governments find thugs, gangsters or similar groups generally more attractive in carrying out coercion?

In my research on “thugs for hire,” I find three key reasons governments take this route. Hiring a third party may be an expedient or easier way to do the dirty jobs that uniformed police cannot legitimately do. These outsiders cost less than formal security agents since they are not part of the government security machinery and do not receive systematic training.

Outsourcing violence can be attractive to government officials looking to avoid being held responsible for any illegal or illegitimate acts. The elusive nature of “thugs for hire” can make it more convenient to deny or shirk off responsibility. In many countries, this move has become part of what my research terms “everyday repression.”

During my field research in China, citizen informants told me “thugs for hire” are engaged on a daily or project basis. Some receive a daily rate as low as 100 yuan (about $14 to $16). Individuals or groups are often bused in from other regions, then transferred out of the location once the job is done.

The goal is to intimidate protesters

In the case of Hong Kong, one possibility is that “thugs for hire” offer an expedient strategy to intimidate protesters and allow authorities to skirt responsibility for any violence that may take place. Short of rolling in tanks, outsourced violence arguably may be the most effective means to ward off protesters. Yuen Long, where the attacks took place, was deserted in the days after the incident as businesses decided to remain closed and residents stayed off the streets.

Though it may prove difficult to determine who ordered Sunday’s attack, there may be longer-term damage to the legitimacy of the Hong Kong government and, by extension, the Chinese government. What started off as protests against a controversial bill that would allow Beijing to extradite Hong Kong-based individuals to the mainland to face trial under the Chinese court system have now evolved into a broader democracy movement.

Repression carried out by “thugs for hire” is not new in Hong Kong or the mainland. If this strategy is behind this week’s attacks in Hong Kong, this could erode the rule of law in Hong Kong that undergirds its status as a “special administrative region” of China — and, more important, Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe harbor for investors worldwide.

Why this strategy could backfire

A strategy of repression by intimidation may well backfire, hardening pro-democracy sentiments among Hong Kongers and boosting support from the international community for the protest movement. The Chinese government has broadcast some of the protest scenes to demonstrate to domestic audiences the chaos associated with protests — yet did not mention the organized attacks on protesters.

In a broader context, hiring of mafia groups or gangsters to carry out dirty jobs was also common in Russia during the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and in Ukraine under President Viktor Yanukovych. During the Arab Spring protests, the Mubarak and Assad regimes also mobilized thugs — the Baltagiya in Egypt and shabiha in Syria — to violently attack pro-democracy protesters. The Barisan Nasional government in Malaysia similarly organized gangsters from rural areas to intimidate peaceful marchers in the city in 2018.

Yet what differentiates Hong Kong from the other cases is its reputation as a modern international financial capital. This suggests that foreign companies invested in Hong Kong also have a stake in the current battle over the rule of law in Hong Kong. If there’s a “thugs for hire” situation in Hong Kong, the high stakes and high degree of public scrutiny suggest that there may ultimately be a high political price to pay.

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Lynette H. Ong is a professor of political science and China expert at the University of Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @onglynette.