HONG KONG—Police fired tear gas during clashes in a rural Hong Kong town on Saturday as several thousand activists gathered to protest an attack by suspected triad gang members on protesters and commuters at a train station last weekend.
Police, widely criticized for failing to better protect the public from the attack by club-wielding men in Yuen Long, had refused to allow the march in the town on safety grounds.
But protesters pushed ahead and what began as a peaceful action by several thousand in sweltering afternoon heat soon grew increasingly tense with stand-offs between police and protesters in several locations.
Protesters who were building barricades out of street furniture and umbrellas were attacked with tear gas.
“I forgot my umbrella, so I had to buy this badminton racket … just for self-protection,” said one young helmeted, masked man, who declined to give his name or age as he sped to the front line.
The protester added that many who marched did not want to stay late, saying Yuen Long was too dangerous for them after dark.
Last Sunday, about 100 white-shirted men stormed the Yuen Long mass-transit station hours after protesters marched through central Hong Kong and defaced China’s Liaison Office—the main symbol of Beijing’s authority over the former British colony.
The men attacked black-clad protesters returning from Hong Kong island, passers-by, journalists, and lawmakers with pipes and clubs, leaving 45 people injured.
The lack of police response became a focus for Saturday’s march.
“They failed the public,” a protester called Kevin, in a red T-shirt, said of the police earlier in the afternoon, as he stood outside the police station, gripping its gates.
“They deliberately let the triads beat up protesters to get revenge on us,” he said.
Police said on Sunday some protesters had surrounded and vandalized a police van.
Police warned protesters at 5:38 p.m. they would soon begin dispersing the crowds.
The Yuen Long attack and the vandalism at the Liaison Office marked new fronts in a protest movement that has intensified over the last two months.
The protests, considered the most direct challenge to the authority of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, mushroomed on Friday as thousands of activists thronged the arrivals halls of Hong Kong international airport.
The protesters, initially demanding the scrapping of a bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland courts for trial, are now also seeking independent inquiries into police use of force, the resignation of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, and full democratic reform—anathema to Beijing’s Communist Party leadership.
The crisis is exposing fissures in Lam’s administration, with police chiefs and rank-and-file officers enraged at an apology over last weekend’s attacks by her chief secretary on Friday, apparently made without consultation.
The official, Matthew Cheung, said the government would not shirk its responsibility “and the police’s handling fell short of residents’ expectations.”
Britain handed Hong Kong to China in 1997 amid guarantees that its core freedoms and autonomy, including the right to protest and an independent judiciary, would be protected under a “one country, two systems” formula.
Many fear those rights are under threat as Beijing’s reach extends into the city.
Activists told Reuters they feared Saturday’s protest would turn violent, given anger among the protesters over last Sunday’s violence and a determination among some to challenge villagers they believe are close to triad groups in the area.
“We are hoping for a peaceful night,” said Neil, masked, in his mid-20s, standing next to a friend who was strapping on a hard hat.
“We want Yuen Long to be safe and peaceful. But there still might be trouble so we have to be prepared.”
Several banks in the area did not open on Saturday and many businesses were shuttered.
By James Pomfret and Greg Torode