Saturday 19 October 2019

Chinese troops in Hong Kong break silence with stark warning to rioters

Violence erupts again after peaceful protests by tens of thousands against city's ban on face masks

Held: Riot police cuff an activist during a rally in central Hong Kong. Photo: Jorge Silva/Reuters
Held: Riot police cuff an activist during a rally in central Hong Kong. Photo: Jorge Silva/Reuters

Nicola Smith

The Chinese military issued an unprecedented warning yesterday amid another night of violence in Hong Kong, as masked protesters risked tear gas and arrest to march in defiance of an emergency ban on face coverings.

As initially peaceful mass protests on Hong Kong island and in Kowloon spiralled into fierce clashes with riot police, the Chinese People's Liberation Army warned protesters they could be arrested for targeting its barracks with laser lights.

The warning, the first of its kind during four months of escalating unrest, was displayed on a yellow flag as hundreds of demonstrators shone laser pens at troops. Soldiers responded with spotlights and filmed the scene.

The Kowloon Tong metro station was trashed. The entire mass transit rail system, targeted by protesters who believe it has colluded with the government and police against them, was suspended yesterday evening.

Wildcat protests sprang up and disappeared quickly as bands of activists played a game of cat and mouse with police. The most radical threw Molotov cocktails at advancing officers, who responded with tear gas and arrests. A journalist was struck on the head, briefly setting his helmet on fire.

In one isolated moment of brutality, a taxi driver was badly beaten by protesters after he drove into them. It is not clear what sparked the incident.

A masked riot policeman stands guard after arresting protesters
A masked riot policeman stands guard after arresting protesters

The day started out peacefully as tens of thousands of protesters - including families with children and elderly people - attended two large unsanctioned rallies. It was a sign of the widespread public anger at a move by Carrie Lam, the city's chief executive, to use a sweeping Emergency Regulations Ordinance to enforce a face mask ban that many believe impairs their freedoms.

By mid-afternoon, the police had launched tear gas at protesters erecting barricades along major routes, before pushing demonstrators back and making multiple arrests in the shopping district of Causeway Bay.

Protesters concealed their faces in defiance of the colonial-era emergency laws. Protesters face a maximum of one year in jail for breaking the mask ban.

"The anti-mask law just fuels our anger and more people will come on to the street," said Lee, a university student wearing a blue mask as he marched on Hong Kong island.

"We are not afraid of the new law, we will continue fighting. We will fight for righteousness. I put on the mask to tell the government that I'm not afraid of tyranny."

Ms Lam justified the ban as necessary to end the turmoil that began with a controversial extradition bill but has spiralled into a wider call for democratic rights. However, many in Hong Kong believe the move has only fuelled mounting public anger.

Yesterday morning, pro-­democracy lawmakers failed in a high court bid to seek an emergency injunction against the ban, arguing that emergency powers bypassed the legislature and contravened the city's mini-constitution.

Sharron Fast, a lecturer in media law at the University of Hong Kong, warned that the use of the emergency regulation had given the chief executive an "unlimited amount of power, in which she alone can enact laws".

In August, Beijing moved thousands of troops across the border into Hong Kong in an operation described at the time as a routine "rotation".

But the PLA has remained in barracks since protests started, leaving Hong Kong's police force to deal with the massive and often violent protests in the Asian financial hub. The PLA's top brass has warned violence is "absolutely impermissible".

The current "precarious situation", which endangered public safety, left no timely solution but the anti-mask law, Matthew Cheung, Hong Kong's chief secretary, wrote on his blog yesterday. He urged people to oppose violence ahead of grassroots district council elections set for November 24.

Four months of protests have pushed Hong Kong to the brink of its first recession in a decade. Financial Secretary Paul Chan insisted yesterday despite recent obstacles, the banking system remained sound and the financial market was functioning well. (Daily Telegraph, London, and Reuters)

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