Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam failed Monday to allay public anger over violent attacks in the city overnight, condemning what she called “riotous” protesters who vandalized a Chinese government building before expressing “regret” that a gang of men armed with rods and cudgels attacked demonstrators and others in the early hours of the morning.
A day of mostly peaceful protests descended into violence late Sunday as police clashed with demonstrators in a central neighborhood while, across the harbor, an organized mob attacked protesters, journalists and passersby in the most barbaric episode of protest-related violence since the unrest began in early June. The latter incident caused public outrage as authorities were accused of doing little to stop the violence.
Outside the Central Police Station, columns of police fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds of protesters following a tense standoff during which demonstrators hurled projectiles at officers. Some of the demonstrators had earlier been seen defacing the facade and insignia of the Chinese government’s liaison office, seen as a direct affront to Beijing.
“The [Hong Kong] government hereby strongly condemns a few radical protesters who viciously surrounded and stormed the Chinese Liaison office, and they defaced the national emblem, openly challenging our country’s sovereignty,” Lam, the city’s chief executive, said at a press conference. Using language more frequently seen in Chinese state mouthpieces, Lam said the protesters “hurt the feelings of the people and angered the entire city.”
More troubling to many in Hong Kong was the violence that unfolded in the outlying neighborhood of Yuen Long, where a mob of men wearing white shirts and armed mostly with sticks, believed to be members of “triad” gangs and apparently targeting protesters, indiscriminately attacked passengers at a subway station. At least 45 people were injured in the melee, according to the city’s hospital authority, including a lawmaker and several journalists. Witnesses said police were slow to respond, and when they arrived they were ineffective.
Lam, joined by Security Secretary Lee Ka-chiu and Police Commissioner Stephen Lo, described the violence as “shocking” and vowed to pursue and prosecute those accountable. “I hereby offer my strong condemnation. Hong Kong is a city with rule of law, we do not tolerate the occurrence of any violence,” Lam said. She later added that an early-morning government statement panned as insufficient was made before authorities “had all the facts.”
Pro-democratic lawmaker Claudia Mo, a key figure in the protests, said Lam’s attempt to conflate the two scenes may only widen the rift between her government and an increasingly distrustful public.
“Every time she comes out to speak she only angers more people,” Mo tells TIME. “I don’t blame her for condemning people for desecrating the Chinese emblem… but the imbalance of trying to lump these two scenes together, on one side it’s just vandalism where the attack targets are objects.”
“But in Yuen Long,” Mo added, “what happened almost amounts to a terrorist scene.”
The protests in Hong Kong, a former British colony, began over a bill that would allow extradition to China, and have continued with no sign of losing steam for seven consecutive weeks. Lam eventually yielded to public pressure and suspended the bill, which she has declared “dead,” but refused to officially withdraw it.
The protests have snowballed into a broader movement demanding more democratic freedoms in the semiautonomous territory, which was handed over to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 under an agreement called “one country, two systems.” The deal was meant to ensure Hong Kong’s autonomy for 50 years, but many feel Beijing is steadily chipping away at their freedoms.
— With reporting by Hillary Leung and Aria Hangyu Chen / Hong Kong