Hong Kong police warn of protesters 'resorting to terrorism' as city cleans up for China's National Day

Riot police stand guard inside Sha Tin MTR station as anti-government protesters gather to demonstrate against the railway operator, on Sept 25, 2019.
Riot police stand guard inside Sha Tin MTR station as anti-government protesters gather to demonstrate against the railway operator, on Sept 25, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS
A worker cleans graffiti put up by protesters in Hong Kong on Sept 30, 2019, a day after the protest-wracked financial hub witnessed its fiercest political violence in weeks.
A worker cleans graffiti put up by protesters in Hong Kong on Sept 30, 2019, a day after the protest-wracked financial hub witnessed its fiercest political violence in weeks.PHOTO: AFP
Anti-government protesters retreat as a tear gas canister explodes near Lippo Centre, Hong Kong, on Sept 29, 2019.
Anti-government protesters retreat as a tear gas canister explodes near Lippo Centre, Hong Kong, on Sept 29, 2019. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
Anti-government protesters set a fire to road block near Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, on Sept 29, 2019.
Anti-government protesters set a fire to road block near Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, on Sept 29, 2019. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
A riot police officer pepper sprays an anti-government protester during a demonstration at Causeway Bay in Hong Kong on Sept 29, 2019.
A riot police officer pepper sprays an anti-government protester during a demonstration at Causeway Bay in Hong Kong on Sept 29, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (AFP, REUTERS) - Hong Kong pro-democracy protests on Tuesday (Oct 1) to mark the 70th anniversary of communist China's founding will be "very, very dangerous", police in the city warned on Monday.

"After our analysis, we're expecting the situation tomorrow to be very, very dangerous," Superintendent John Tse told reporters.

"Core rioters are increasing their violence. The depth and breadth of their violence and plans show that they are increasingly resorting to terrorism," he added.

Hong Kong’s metro stations and roads re-opened on Monday (Sept 30), after a chaotic weekend that saw police fire water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters who set fires and threw petrol bombs outside government offices and across central districts.

The Chinese territory is on edge ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on Tuesday, with the authorities eager to avoid scenes that could embarrass the central government in Beijing.

Reuters reported that China has quietly more than doubled its deployment of mainland security forces in Hong Kong, according to foreign envoys and security analysts, in the most dramatic move yet by Beijing to prepare for a potential worsening of unrest in the global financial centre.

Last month, Beijing moved thousands of troops across the border into this restive city, which has been wracked by protests since June. 

The state news agency Xinhua described the operation as a routine “rotation” of the low-key force China has kept in Hong Kong since the city’s handover from Britain in 1997.

A month on, seven Asian and Western envoys have told Reuters they are certain the late-August deployment was not a rotation at all, but a reinforcement. 

Three of the envoys said the number of Chinese military personnel in Hong Kong had more than doubled since the anti-government protests began in June.

They put the number of Chinese military personnel at 3,000 to 5,000 in the months before the reinforcement, and estimated it was now between 10,000 to 12,000.

As a result, the envoys believe, China has now assembled its largest-ever active force of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops and other anti-riot personnel and equipment in Hong Kong.

Significantly, five of the diplomats say, the reinforcement includes elements of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), a mainland paramilitary anti-riot and internal security force under a separate command from the PLA. Until now, the presence of the PAP in Hong Kong has not been publicly known.

China’s Ministry of National Defence, the State Council Information Office, and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office did not respond to questions from Reuters.

The office of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and the PLA garrison in Hong Kong also did not respond to questions. 

A Hong Kong police spokesperson told Reuters the police force was “capable of maintaining law and order and determined to restore public safety in Hong Kong”. 

The reinforcement in Hong Kong includes equipment tailor-made for the quelling of urban violence, including water cannon vehicles and trucks used to lay barbed wire barricades. 

Reuters reporters have tracked increased activity at many of the PLA’s 17 facilities across Hong Kong, Kowloon and rural New Territories, most of which were inherited under an agreement with the departing British forces during the 1997 handover.

Some foreign analysts said China’s reinforced military presence was bigger than expected.

“They do seem to have an active contingency plan to deal with something like a total breakdown in order by the Hong Kong police,” said Mr Alexander Neill, a Singapore-based security analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed on Monday  to uphold the “one country, two systems” principle in Hong Kong. Speaking at a reception in Beijing the night before celebrations to mark China’s 70th anniversary, Mr Xi said the country would “continue to fully and faithfully implement the principles of “one country, two systems” and a “high degree of autonomy”.

A huge clean-up was under way in Hong Kong after roads, shops and buildings across the financial centre were daubed in graffiti, windows in government buildings smashed and parts of pavements uprooted by protesters during the weekend’s demonstrations.

Some underground stations were vandalised and streets were littered with debris from roadblocks and the charred remains of fires.

Shops were open despite protesters' call for city-wide strikes on Monday, the eve of China's National Day.

Two prominent democracy activists, actor Gregory Wong and Ventus Lau, were arrested for their involvement in protests on Monday, according to a representative for the Civil Human Rights Front, the organiser of previous mass protests.

Hong Kong police did not immediately confirm the arrests.

Mrs Lam, the focus of the unrest, made a last-minute decision to mark the People’s Republic anniversary in Beijing. The embattled leader had sent out invitations“requesting the pleasure of your company” at a flag-raising ceremony and reception in Hong Kong on Tuesday.

Security was tight around the Convention Centre where the ceremony is due to take place, with roads closed and riot police on guard. A series of strikes are planned on Monday and multiple demonstrations are scheduled on Tuesday.

It was not clear whether Mrs Lam was summoned to Beijing due to the escalation in the violence on the weekend. The government said Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung Kin Chung would stand in for her at the anniversary ceremony.

The unrest over the weekend saw some of the worst and most widespread violence in more than three months of anti-government demonstrations in the Asian financial hub.

The weekend marked the fifth anniversary of the start of the “Umbrella” protests – a series of pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 that failed to wrestle concessions from Beijing.


Anti-government protesters retreat as a tear gas canister explodes near Lippo Centre, Hong Kong, on Sept 29, 2019.  ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

 
 
 
 

The latest clashes began mid-afternoon on Sunday and continued late into the night, as thousands of masked protesters roamed the streets, facing off against riot police amid plumes of tear gas and raging fires.

Protesters are angry about what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in their city’s affairs despite a promise of autonomy when British rule ended in 1997.

The trigger for the protests was planned legislation, now withdrawn, that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial, despite Hong Kong having its own much-respected independent judiciary.

The protests have since broadened into calls for universal suffrage.

Police said an officer fired a warning shot after they were “surrounded and attacked by a large group of violent protesters” on Sunday.

By early morning on Monday, all MTR metro stations on the city’s main island were open as normal. However, staff could be seen repairing damage and clearing debris from in and around the stations.

Workers at a Starbucks outlet targeted by protesters were shovelling broken glass into garbage bags and peeling anti-China posters off the walls.

Starbucks stores in Hong Kong are run by the Maxim’s Group, which has drawn the ire of protesters after Ms Annie Wu, the daughter of the founder, criticised the protests during an appearance at the United Nations earlier this month.

Many restaurants and stores have had to repeatedly shut, with the protests taking a growing toll on the city’s economy as it faces its first recession in a decade.

An Indonesian journalist was hit in the eye by a rubber bullet on Sunday and was hospitalised. The Indonesian Consulate in Hong Kong confirmed that one of its citizens had been injured.

With input from The Straits Times