Let's not mince words about Sunday's attack in the MTR subway station in Yuen Long.
Wo Shing Wo and 14K triads attacked protesters returning from a pro-democracy march on Sunday night. . They were probably paid to do so by China, or at least pro-Beijing forces.
These were not "unidentified men in white T-shirts," as you'll read in some news media. Everyone in Hong Kong knows who did it.
Why does this matter overseas? It appears that Hong Kong has become genuinely lawless, and that the police in this case colluded to withdraw, so that the gangsters could attack. The Yuen Long gangsters apparently injured some family members of triads in Tuen Mun, which has led to rumors of gang-on-gang fighting.
It's hard for investors to know where this is heading long-term. The Hang Seng index's 1.4% decline today is similar to the 1.3% decline in Shanghai. Businesses should be worried of serious disruption and worse violence in Hong Kong. A lot of businesses closed early today so employees could get back in the daytime.
It also shows how frustrated and desperate pro-Beijing forces are to quell the pro-democracy demonstrations, which started in protest to a bill that would allow the extradition of suspects from Hong Kong to China. I don't expect another Tiananmen Square massacre, which happened 30 years ago this year, but much more serious violence now seems extremely likely. And I've been wrong about the extent of these protests so far.
Last night, some of the triads symbolically used rattan canes, which were traditionally used to discipline children in China. Others used thin metal poles. Two police officers walked away as the attack began, later claiming they were undermanned, and a couple of officers were filmed chatting with some of the triads outside the station. There have been no arrests.
A pro-Beijing lawmaker, Junius Ho, even clapped in applause, gave the thumbs up, and then shook hands with two gangsters, including one who had taken off his mask, as you can see here. Ho says the "unidentified people" just wanted to take a picture with him. A man can be heard telling Ho, "You are my idol," to which he said "All of you are my heroes."
Although at first the gangsters targeted people wearing black whom they apparently believed were returning from the march, they ended up attacking anybody in the station, including women and children (and apparently gangsters' families). The pro-democracy lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting of the Democratic Party was left bleeding from the mouth. The gangsters took a reporter's TV camera and smashed it, and beat up a male reporter, according to the Hong Kong Journalists Association.
One man is in critical condition in the hospital, and 45 people went to hospital for their injuries. Ironically, it appears that the critically injured man may be a gangster who collapsed while fighting.
These events have been applauded within China, by people who are fed up with "spoiled" Hong Kongers demonstrating for freedoms of speech, political opinion and assembly -- all of which is viewed in the mainland as pointless luxuries.
It is quite a common tactic in mainland China for authorities to use gangsters to clear land, break up demonstrations, and bully activists. Officials can then deny involvement, and do what they wanted to do anyway in the name of restoring order. The mob violence, unprecedented in Hong Kong, will likely prompt even bigger marches. The protest set for this weekend is now switched to the Yuen Long neighborhood, and I'll be taking my family. But the real message may have been to people within China: See, this is what happens when you ask for too much.
The Foreign Correspondents' Club of Hong Kong, of which I'm a member, issued a statement that "strongly condemns" this mob violence. They will be holding a silent protest outside the club over the next few days saying "Yes to press freedom, no to violence against journalists."
The police have mobilized heavily to combat mostly peaceful protests that started in April and picked up in earnest in June. On Sunday, 430,000 people marched, according to the organizers. This latest demonstration ended at the Chinese government's liaison office in Hong Kong. Some protesters threw eggs at the building, daubed graffiti, and spray painted the surveillance cameras.
The police reacted then with tear gas, rubber bullets, and squads of officers in full riot gear, as they have with most of the demonstrations. They've pushed and shoved the media, too. But in Yuen Long, when people were being seriously hurt, they only showed up after all the triads had left, even though the triads staged a two-part attack that began at 11 p.m. and resumed at midnight. The local police station didn't respond to emergency calls, and pulled down its metal shutters, and closed.
My wife and I watched it livestreamed on Facebook. I haven't seen anything like it.
The imbalance is striking: The protesters paint a sign and throw eggs at a building, while the gangs beat dozens of people on the back and face -- and in at least one case kick a person in the head --while being begged not to harm wife and children.
Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam condemned both the protests at the China Liaison Office and the subway assaults in Yuen Long, a working-class suburb known for its triad activity. Pro-Beijing parties have -- as expected -- denounced the "violent radicals" at the Liaison Office, and the violent assault in Yuen Long.
The Liaison Office attack "seriously contravened China's constitution and were an insult to the country and its people," according to DAB party leader Starry Lee, while the attacks in Yuen Long were "very serious," which they "seriously condemned."
If that's not enough, there's even an echo of Carrie Lam's words at the outset of the protests that the demonstrators were like spoiled children. She called the June 12 confrontation between pro-democracy demonstrators and police a "riot," something she has refused to retract, but said she would not categorize the mob violence in the subway station as a riot, to avoid "misunderstanding and anxiety" with the public.
Now, at this stage, I wonder who exactly it is who has not learned their lesson.
This story has been updated.