HONG KONG — Pro-democracy lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting was in a subway station near his constituency on Sunday night responding to reports of a violent mob in the area. Suddenly, dozens more of the white-shirted men appeared, surrounding the station.
Armed with bats, batons and wooden rods attached to Chinese flags, they chased protesters returning from a largely peaceful anti-government march into a subway train and around the station. As they kicked, hit and punched people, commuters pleaded for mercy and hid behind umbrellas. One witness said several women were wailing and hyperventilating in fear, some separated from their family members.
Video shared with The Washington Post showed the men beating people with sticks so violently that they fell to the ground, clutching injured limbs. Chinese flags that had fallen from the sticks littered the floor. Surgical face masks and tissues drenched in blood lay abandoned on subway cars.
“There were so many passengers, so many ordinary people,” said Lam, speaking by telephone from a hospital where he was recovering from broken fingers, a deep gash near his mouth and other injuries to his arms and body. He could not remember how many had surrounded and pummeled him, but he said they were using vulgar language and telling people to stay away from the Yuen Long neighborhood.
The scenes marked an unprecedented level of violence against protesters during a political crisis that has gripped Hong Kong this summer. Those protests began in response to a now-suspended Hong Kong government proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China, but they have since swollen into a pro-autonomy movement calling for greater democracy and an inquiry into police violence, as well as the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill and the resignation of Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader.
In Washington, President Trump said Monday he believes that Chinese President Xi Jinping has reacted responsibly toward the Hong Kong protests.
The mob attacks on protesters late Sunday provoked widespread anger across Hong Kong. They also raised questions about the responsiveness of police, who arrived at the Yuen Long station only after the mob had left, more than an hour and a half after the first emergency calls. They made no immediate arrests. Police said Monday night they arrested two men involved in the Yuen Long attacks and charged them with illegal assembly.
Police Commissioner Stephen Lo said in a news conference Monday that his force had been busy responding to protests on Hong Kong island, about 20 miles away, and was short-staffed.
“We will review our manpower deployment and do our best to ensure public order and public safety in every district of Hong Kong,” he said.
By early Monday, 45 men and women had been admitted to hospitals around Yuen Long in the New Territories area, close to the border with mainland China, some in critical condition. Among them was a pregnant woman who was knocked to the ground, a chef who suffered multiple gashes to his back, journalists and a member of the pro-democracy group Demosisto founded by activist Joshua Wong, according to local media reports, witnesses and the group.
The lawmakers and others attributed the attacks to organized-crime groups that operate in China and Hong Kong, known as triads. Lo did not dispute a reporter’s characterization that the attacks were the work of triads but said there was no cooperation between police and the attackers.
Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy when China reclaimed sovereignty over the British colony in 1997. But in recent years, concerns have grown that an increasingly powerful Beijing is asserting its influence in Hong Kong and gradually eroding the city’s relative freedoms and rule of law.
On Sunday evening, before the Yuen Long attacks, anti-government protesters defaced the Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, spraying anti-China graffiti and pelting the building with eggs. They also splattered black ink over the Chinese national emblem.
Protesters and pro-democracy lawmakers expressed outrage that Hong Kong’s government was quicker to condemn, in a late-night statement, the actions of the protesters — who did not injure anyone at the Chinese liaison office or other buildings — than the white-shirted attackers later in the night.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, in a short news conference Monday flanked by other top officials including the police chief, began her remarks by again condemning the protesters. In response to media questions, she said her government was late to respond to the violence in Yuen Long because it did not have all the information at the time.
“At the time we issued the statement, we were not in possession of all the facts,” she said, condemning the protesters who vandalized the Chinese government building and the attacks at the subway station. “Violence is not the solution to any problem. Violence will only breed more violence, and at the end of the day the whole of Hong Kong will suffer.”
China’s government expressed outrage at the vandalism of its liaison office, calling the protesters’ actions “intolerable.” Editorials in state media, including the front page of the People’s Daily newspaper, condemned the protesters’ behavior, signaling Communist leaders’ impatience with the Hong Kong protests and their intensifying anti-Beijing flavor.
“Such acts not only trample on the rule of law in Hong Kong, but also openly challenge the authority of the central government and touch the bottom line of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle,” the People’s Daily commentary said.
For Theo, who wanted to be identified only by his English nickname for fear of retribution, the statements from the Hong Kong government and its backers in Beijing miss the point. He was having dinner in the Tuen Mun neighborhood where he lives, one subway stop away from Yuen Long, when he saw on social media that mobs in white T-shirts were circling the area and harassing protesters, many dressed in black, returning home from the march.
Through a secure messaging app, he heard of an initiative to hand out different-colored shirts to protesters returning home so they could not be easily identified. He rushed to buy some T-shirts and join them. By the time he arrived just after 9:30 p.m., he said, the scene was brutal and messy, with the gang attacking people indiscriminately.
Theo tried to call the police but was unable to get through. He spoke to staffers at the subway station, who told him they, too, could not get in touch, he said. Yoho Mall, the retail complex connected to the subway station through an underground link, said in a statement that mall staffers also could not reach officers.
“Staff from the service office and people in the mall made calls to police for help after they had noticed people were attacked, but they failed to get in touch with the police,” the mall’s statement said.
Theo said: “It is so ridiculous. The police should be protecting citizens, not some buildings. I’m so frustrated to the point that I don’t feel anything anymore. The police have no legitimacy and authority to me anymore. To me, they are just not police.”
Lo, the police commissioner, promised Monday to speed up the collection of evidence and bring the perpetrators of the violence to justice.
Some of the Yuen Long attackers were not wearing masks, despite the presence of security cameras across the subway stations and dozens of citizens and journalists recording their actions on smartphones. The anti-government protesters, in contrast, have gone to great lengths to obscure their identities for fear of arrest.
Lam, the hospitalized lawmaker, characterized the bloodshed as a “serious neglect of duty” on the part of police.
“We kept pleading with them, but ultimately no action was taken,” he said. “What message is the government trying to send to us?”
Tiffany Liang in Hong Kong and Gerry Shih in Beijing contributed to this report.