Violent clashes have broken out in Hong Kong as counter-demonstrators seek to forcibly remove protestors from areas where they have set up camp. The clashes were the worst in Mong Kok, a busy shopping and entertainment district in Kowloon (across the bay from the Central and Admiralty districts, where the bulk of the protests are centered).
In Mong Kok, a group of counter-demonstrators stormed the protest encampment, tearing down tents and even physically assaulting some of the protestors. Photos of bloodied victims circulated on Twitter. There were also allegations that female protestors were being singled out and sexually harassed as an intimidation tactic. Outraged protestors blamed the Hong Kong police for not doing enough to protect them from the violence.
Benny Tai, one of the organizers of the Occupy Central Movement, accused the police of doing nothing to protect the people. Tai said that he suspected the attackers were affiliated with mafia groups; others have claimed the counter-demonstrators are paid thugs hired by the Hong Kong government (or even Beijing itself) to break up the protests. Eyewitnesses on Twitter pointed to the widespread use of Mandarin Chinese among the counter-demonstrators as evidence (native Hongkongers speak Cantonese rather than Mandarin).
However, some of the counter-demonstrators insisted they were Hongkongers who were simply fed up with their city being paralyzed by the protest movement. “I’m not a triad, I’m a Hongkonger,” one told the New York Times. Another said he was trying to move out the protestors because “They blocked the road … They blocked the people going to work.” Initial reports indicated that many of the counter-demonstrators were retirees, essentially pitting Hong Kong young students against their elders in a generational struggle.
Heading into Friday night, there were signs that the protests were losing public support. Numbers were down at the protest sites, thanks to the end of public holidays as well as a rainstorm. However, numbers climbed back up as people joined together to defend the protestors from their attackers. As one man told The Guardian’s Tania Branigan, “[The protestors] are causing an inconvenience … but people are clearly being sent in to attack them and I don’t believe that’s right so therefore I’ve come down to try and defend them.”
Police presence also surged. By around 10 pm the police had loaded up a bus full of violent counter-demonstrators, accompanied by cheers and applause from students. The police superintendent told reporter Tom Grundy that he did not believe the police response had been slow. Even though the situation in Mong Kok has calmed down considerably, protest organizers were urging people to leave the area for their own safety and join in the main protests in the Admiralty and Central districts of Hong Kong.
The situation was far calmer at the heart of the protests, where pro-democracy advocates are camped out near government buildings. However, in a videotaped statement Chief Executive CY Leung called for the protestors to disperse. A separate statement issued Friday night by the Hong Kong government took an even sterner stance: “The behavior of these protesters is illegal, extremely unreasonable and inhumane, and is even worse than that of radical social activists and almost complete anarchy.” The statement called for protestors to leave, and warned that attempts to obstruct access to government buildings will not be tolerated. Protestors remain outside the government buildings, but have blocked access to the chief executive’s office for several days now.
Meanwhile, in response to the violent clashes on Friday, the Hong Kong Federation of Students issued a statement saying it was suspending talks with the Hong Kong government. Yesterday, Chief Executive Leung offered to meet HKFS’s request for dialogue with Hong Kong officials. In a statement posted to its Facebook page, HKFS accused the government of “unreasonably cracking down on the Occupy Movement and taking the people for enemies.” HKFS said that the government and police had allowed the protestors to come under attack from mobsters, thus “breaking off the path to dialogue.” The government must accept responsibility for the consequences, the statement added. HKFS also asked those with evidence of violence against protestors to post it on the group’s Facebook page.