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Hong Kong’s hardcore protesters take justice into their own hands

A man is attacked by a masked man, both surrounded by journalists, in the Kowloon area of Hong Kong, Oct. 6, 2019. (Adam Dean/The New York Times)
October 7, 2019 09:28 am Updated: October 7, 2019 09:29 am

HONG KONG — When protesters in Hong Kong this weekend came upon an older, shirtless man who was threatening a crowd, they pounded him to the ground with a stick. When a taxi swerved into a group of protesters nearby, some dragged the driver out and beat him until he was covered in blood.

And a few blocks away, protesters punched a Hong Kong actress who has publicly supported the police — apparently because she had been taking photos of protesters who were vandalizing a bank.

“Go back to the mainland!” the protesters yelled as she left the scene.

A confrontational core of Hong Kong’s anti-government protesters have acted with greater ferocity in recent weeks, attacking individuals and smashing and torching storefronts, banks, cafes and subway entrances. In a strikingly personal affront, one group even delivered a severed pig’s head to a police officer’s wedding banquet.

For months, the protests, which began out of anger toward a proposed extradition law but broadened to encompass a variety of demands, have been largely peaceful, but violence now regularly overshadows events.

The hard-line protesters see themselves as being forced to mete out justice in a system that lacks accountability and in the face of a government they deem unresponsive. Much of the violence has been fueled by anger over police conduct, made worse after an officer shot a teenage protester in the chest with a live round during clashes Oct. 1, the politically sensitive anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

But to their critics, these protesters are crossing the line by playing the role of vigilantes to punish those they consider their foes. The intensity of the unrest could alienate moderate supporters and members of the public, and play to Beijing’s depictions of the movement as the work of riotous mobs.

“Some people began to take matters into their own hands,” said Ma Ngok, an associate professor of government at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He pointed in part to the protesters’ frustration that the police have failed to arrest and prosecute pro-government thugs who attacked demonstrators.

Yet, he added, in recent days, the movement has been debating whether such retributive violence is morally justifiable.

The protesters describe vigilante attacks as “settling matters privately,” or “si liu” in Cantonese. On internet forums where rallies and gatherings are organized, some posts calling on protesters to return punches have gained traction on the ground.

The decision by Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, on Friday to invoke emergency powers to ban the use of face masks at protests has only further angered the protesters, who see it as the latest example of eroding freedoms in the semiautonomous territory. Many who attended rallies Sunday wore masks in defiance of the ban.

In the Mong Kok neighborhood Sunday night, two men in masks who looked to be in their 20s or 30s punched a shirtless, older man who was standing in the street and arguing with a crowd.

The man tried to walk away after being hit at least three times — in the face, neck and jaw. But another masked attacker struck him on the back of the head with a stick, knocking him to the ground, and hit the man again.

In another confrontation, video footage circulating online showed a group of protesters pulling a taxi driver out of his car and beating him bloody after his vehicle had accelerated with a sharp swerve into a crowd.

Some protesters formed a circle around the driver in an apparent effort to protect him, but by then he was already bleeding profusely from his head. At least one protester was reportedly injured by the swerving car.

“Rioters blatantly launched brutal attacks on ordinary citizens yesterday,” the police said in a statement Monday, referring to the beating of the taxi driver and other confrontations that day. “Such acts of violence by far overstep the moral boundaries of any civilized society.”

Protesters have also begun setting more and more street blazes, which send plumes of black smoke swirling through Hong Kong’s urban canyons. Bonfires at the entrances to subway stations have been set to show anger at the transportation network’s perceived support for the government. The fires have added a sharp edge to a slogan from the “Hunger Games” movies — “If we burn, you burn with us” — that the movement appropriated months ago as a challenge to the city’s political elite.

Many protesters and organizers have avoided overtly criticizing violence on the part of the demonstrators, asserting that any fracture in their unified position weakens their influence. But there were signs that more demonstrators were concerned that the escalation in violent tactics, even if justified to many, would undermine the movement.

On Sunday, a post on the Reddit-like forum LIHKG, used by protesters, urged demonstrators to resist the incitement to violence. The post, which was upvoted over 1,800 times, asserted a theory that internet commentators paid by the Chinese government could be pushing protesters to adopt extreme tactics to try to sow divisions within the movement and erode public support for it.