HONG KONG • The savage beating of Hong Kong protesters by triad gangsters has deepened fears about the city's notorious criminal gangs and the use of shadowy hired muscle to defend China's interests.
At least 45 people were hospitalised after Sunday's attack, when men armed with poles and rods assaulted anti-government protesters in the rural town of Yuen Long as they returned from another rally.
In a city that prides itself on a reputation for safety, the scenes caused outrage and fear. They also offered a glimpse into an underworld that has long stalked the city.
For seasoned watchers of Hong Kong and its shadowy nexus of organised crime, the brazen beatings came as little surprise. In recent years, analysts said, there has been a growing tendency for thugs to target perceived threats to Beijing - in Hong Kong, on the Chinese mainland and even in Taiwan.
Triads trace their origins to 19th century Chinese fraternal organisations. Most fled to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan when the communists took power in mainland China in 1949 and revolutionary leader Mao Zedong cracked down on "black societies".
Many allied with the defeated Kuomintang nationalists in Taiwan. But many gangs began shifting allegiances in the early 1990s as China embarked on its economic rise. Beijing also began to show an openness to triads during this time.
"As long as these people are patriotic, as long as they are concerned with Hong Kong's prosperity and stability, we should unite with them," China's Public Security Bureau chief Tao Siju said in 1993.
Since Hong Kong's 1997 handover from British colonial rule, some of Beijing's most ardent critics have found themselves at the wrong end of a triad assault.
Radio host Albert Cheng, publisher Chen Ping and owner of the Apple Daily tabloid Jimmy Lai have all survived triad attacks. Former Ming Pao newspaper editor Kevin Lau was nearly killed in a machete attack by two men.
In 2014, as a wave of pro-democracy protests swept through Hong Kong, a group of men descended on demonstrators in Mongkok. Many of those later arrested had links with triad gangs Wo Shing Wo and 14K.
Political analyst Dixon Sing said the Yuen Long attack was to instil fear and deter people from joining future protests, but it "had created a large backlash and may backfire". Anti-government protesters are now threatening to hold a rally this weekend - in Yuen Long.