(Bloomberg) — Hong Kong police set up barricades and warned of arrests as demonstrators prepared to march in a northern district where stick-wielding mobs attacked train commuters and protesters on Sunday.
Police withheld permission for the marches in Yuen Long on Saturday, citing fears of clashes. Some stores were closed in by mid-morning and police had blocked off parts of the district.
The demonstration follows a sit-in at Hong Kong’s international airport Friday, the first of three days of demonstrations against the city’s China-backed government. Organizers said 15,000 people took part in the airport protest, while police put the number at 4,000 at its peak.
The former British colony is entering its eighth straight week of unrest sparked by now-suspended legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. The movement has swelled into a wider anti-government campaign that includes demands for Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s resignation and an inquiry into excessive use of force against protesters.
The city’s No. 2 official, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, urged Hong Kong residents “to express their demands in a peaceful and rational way” in a rare news conference before Saturday’s march. He said the government took “a very serious attitude” toward the possibility of violence and said, “we cannot rule out the possibility of large number of people turning up.”
As many as 3,000 police officers would be deployed to maintain order in Yuen Long and will arrest people where necessary if there are illegal mass gatherings, Wen Wei Po reported, citing unidentified people. Police declined to talk about operation details Saturday when contacted by phone.
On Friday, swarms of people wearing the black shirts favored by protesters sat on the ground of Terminal 1’s arrivals hall, holding signs and chanting “Free Hong Kong! Free Hong Kong!” and other slogans as crowds watched. Cathay Pacific Airlines Ltd.’s flight attendants’ union encouraged aviation industry staff to participate and said it would set up a specific area for its members. As of 6 p.m. there were no major service disruptions.
Aviation workers passed around a petition to the government protesting tear gas and street fighting that rocked parts of the city Sunday. Staff from the airport authority, various airlines, restaurants and shops lined up to sign it. Protesters greeted arriving passengers with signs reading “Final Destination Hong Kong to Freedom” and “Welcome to Hong Kong, a city run by police & gangsters.”
The protest at Asia’s busiest international airport underscores the economic risk of continued unrest, with local retailers bracing for a single-to-double-digit drop sales as demonstrations keep tourists out of shops. In recent weeks, the protests have spilled over from government districts to malls and railway stations, impacting more ordinary residents.
The civil actions have continued despite government apologies and promises not to pass the extradition bill.
“The protest is a way to show that Hong Kong people have had enough of this and hope the government will stop the violence,” said Marco Chan, a 23-year-old legal analyst. “For those of my friends who decide to go, they think that what happened in Yuen Long last week is too outrageous for them not to step up and show how angry they are.”
Chan said he expected to be joined at the demonstration by his pro-establishment father who was outraged by what he saw as an inadequate police response. At least 45 people were injured in the attacks.
Authorities later arrested a dozen men, including at least nine with suspected links to the city’s notorious triad gangs who have long had a large presence in the area. Police Commissioner Stephen Lo has defended officers’ conduct in Yuen Long, saying those who had arrived on scene were outnumbered and not properly equipped to respond.
A 56-year-old retired civil servant, who would only give his name as R. Ng, was at Saturday’s protest with his wife and friends, and said he’s worried about potential violence in Yuen Long, despite attending many protests. “This is my first time taking an umbrella, because I need to protect myself,” he said.
The outbursts of violence, including clashes between police and protesters near China’s liaison office in the city on Sunday, have put pressure on Chinese President Xi Jinping to find a solution. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo urged China in a Bloomberg Television interview Thursday to “do the right thing” in Hong Kong and called on all parties to avoid violence. China’s foreign ministry had earlier urged the U.S. to remove its “black hand” from the city.
The Chinese government “would like to make sure there are reasons in Hong Kong to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China,” Kevin Lai, chief economist for Asia ex-Japan at Daiwa Capital Markets Hong Kong Ltd., said in a note Friday. “Having another 1 million people taking to the streets on October 1 would be undesirable for the party.”
On Sunday, protesters also plan to march from centrally located Chater Garden on Hong Kong Island toward the western neighborhood of Sheung Wan. That will bring them close to China’s local government office, where vandalism during a rally on Sunday prompted warnings from Beijing.
The protests are “not only expressing grievances, but also showing that we don’t support any illegal violence in our society and also that the social order cannot be ignored by the police force in Hong Kong,” said opposition lawmaker Au Nok-hin. “The violence happened last weekend in Yuen Long has had a very great impact on Hong Kong society.”
–With assistance from Annie Lee.
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