Tear gas, attacks and Beijing's warnings fuel Hong Kong anxiety

A night of protests and clashes in Hong Kong -- including tear gas volleys and roving groups of masked men attacking protesters -- prompted the strongest warnings yet from the Chinese government and fanned fears of escalating violence.

Police fired smoke canisters to clear Hong Kong's streets late Sunday after demonstrators defied government requests to cut short another large and otherwise peaceful march through the Asian financial hub. Thousands of protesters had earlier surrounded China's liaison office and defaced the national emblem, an act that Beijing's representative said in a statement "seriously challenged" the central government's authority.

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Around the same time, groups of men wearing white shirts and surgical masks attacked metro passengers in the Yuen Long area, miles away near the border with the mainland metropolis of Shenzhen. While no arrests were made and it was unclear who the assailants were, the group targeted people dressed in black, the preferred color of demonstrators. An opposition lawmaker and several journalists were among dozens reported injured in the melee.

In a news conference Monday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam condemned both the protesters who encircled the Liaison Office and the attackers in Yuen Long, promising to investigate the incidents.

"We absolutely do not condone those sorts of violent acts," Lam said, flanked by police chief Stephen Lo and other officials. "Let me make that clear again: Violence is not a solution to any problems. At the end of the day, the whole of Hong Kong and its people will suffer as a result of loss of order." She said authorities were trying to locate the root cause of public anger.

Traffic had resumed around China's liaison office and in Sheung Wan with little sign of protesters. Street sweepers were cleaning up the sidewalk nearby with bricks ripped up. Graffiti on the wall of the Liaison office was covered up by black plastic and the national emblem had been replaced. Hong Kong government's headquarters remained open Monday.

Wang Zhimin, director of the liaison office, said Monday that the city's chaos could not continue, describing the protesters' actions at the office as "villainous and wicked."

The incidents underscored a gathering sense of political crisis in the former British colony, which has been wracked by weeks of mass demonstrations and unrest, including the ransacking of its legislative chamber earlier this month. What began as a largely leaderless effort to block legislation allowing extraditions to the mainland has morphed into a list of demands ranging from investigations into police tactics to a direct vote to replace China-appointed Lam.

There are growing signs the chaos is taking a toll on the economy. The Hong Kong Retail Management Association said last week that "most members" reported a single-to-double-digit drop in average sales revenue between June and the first week of July. Private bankers in Singapore and elsewhere are being flooded with inquiries from Hong Kong investors worried about the crisis' long-term effects, Bloomberg reported last week.

The protest movement has persisted through extreme heat and Lam's insistence that her controversial bill was "dead." The organizer of the peaceful phase of Sunday's protest, the Civil Human Rights Front, said 430,000 people turned out, a figure that would've been historically large before marches last month that drew more than 1 million. Police said 138,000 attended at its peak.

Kingston Cheung, a 17-year-old student who's taken part in the protests since they started June 9, said he marched Sunday to voice opposition to the government's handling of previous protests. "The focus of the protests has been about the extradition bill, but we are also starting to see how the government and police have mishandled them," he said.

The weekend also showed a growing effort to push back against the protest groups, with more than 100,000 attending a rally Saturday in support of the government and the police.

The Chinese Communist Party's flagship People's Daily warned in an editorial Monday that protesters at the liaison office "openly challenged the authority of the central government."

The developments followed a report in the South China Morning Post last week that Chinese officials in charge of Hong Kong are working to present leaders with a comprehensive strategy to resolve the crisis. Authorities have ruled out any military intervention and saw the police as key to maintaining stability and exposing the intentions of protesters, the newspaper reported, citing people familiar with the discussions.

On Saturday, three men were arrested in connection with the seizure of explosives, firebombs and other weapons in a industrial building in the Tsuen Wan district, according to a police statement.

Bernard Chan, a top adviser to Lam and convener of the city's Executive Council, told Bloomberg in an email that there was little more the government could do to meet the demands of the protesters. "The government have already suspended the bill and chief executive has made very clear the bill is dead," Chan said. "I don't see how it will ever reintroduce to Legco under this term or any term in the future."

Protesters decided to converge on the liaison office after police refused to allow the CHRF to continue its march beyond the Wan Chai area, preventing them from passing the city's main government buildings.

The protesters vandalized the exterior of the liaison office and read a list of demands before retreating to avoid a clash with advancing police. Riot officers pursued them to an area near the ferry terminal to Macau, where they unleashed tear gas to clear the area after some threw projectiles.

Far from the main demonstrations, at least 45 people were hurt in fights with groups of men in the Yuen Long area who appeared to be targeting protesters returning from the rally, Radio Television Hong Kong reported. Among those injured was Lam Cheuk-ting, a Democratic Party lawmaker.

He said he was concerned the aggressors -- some in their 20s and others as old as their 60s -- could have ties to triad gangs.

(Updates with Carrie Lam comments from fourth paragraph. Earlier versions corrected to say Tse Chun-chung and Wang Zhimin both spoke on Monday and that attacks happened in Yuen Long.)

 

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Bloomberg's David Watkins, Fion Li, Dominic Lau, David Tweed, Justin Chin, Gloria Cheung and Stephen Tan contributed.

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