29 January 2020
A group of suspected gangsters wearing white T-shirts targeted anti-government protesters in an attack at a train station on Sunday night. The violence has left Hong Kong authorities red-faced. Photo: Reuters
A group of suspected gangsters wearing white T-shirts targeted anti-government protesters in an attack at a train station on Sunday night. The violence has left Hong Kong authorities red-faced. Photo: Reuters

Yuen Long attacks deal further damage to govt credibility

On Sunday, July 21, hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers again joined a mass rally organized by the Civil Human Rights Front to express their discontent over the state of affairs in the city in the wake of the extradition bill disaster.

Rather than dispersing after the rally in the afternoon, about a thousand protesters opted to go to Beijing’s Liaison Office in Sai Ying Pun. Some of those protesters indulged in vandalism, defacing signage and equipment on the outer walls of the building, before moving on to other locations in Sheung Wan where serious clashes erupted with the police.

However, there were even more disturbing events elsewhere that same night. In Yuen Long, a group of suspected gangsters beat up people at a rail station, targeting anti-government protesters who were returning from the Hong Kong Island rally as well as passersby.

As news of the horrifying attack filtered through, there was widespread revulsion as well as panic among citizens, who wondered how criminal thugs were able to launch a brazen attack on civilians with seemingly no fear of the police.

Looking at Sunday’s disturbances, we can assume that the Yuen Long incident will have even more profound implications for the everyday life of the citizens and the city’s economy than the clashes at the Liaison Office.

On Monday afternoon, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, with her principal officials and Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung standing at her side, held a press conference to condemn the violence at the Liaison Office and in Yuen Long.

According to a government source, the line-up was intended as a demonstration of the resolve and determination of the Lam administration to make a point about governance.

As to why the chief executive didn’t hold a press conference immediately following the Yuen Long attacks like she did after the storming of the Legislative Council complex by protesters on July 1, the government source said it is because Lam needed more time to understand details of the situation in Yuen Long and the police deployment during the incident, among other things.

Now, even though the chief executive and her cabinet colleagues are putting up a brave front, it appears the business community is deeply concerned as to whether the administration can really deliver going forward.

On Monday, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce issued a statement in which it condemned the previous day’s violence and called for a “swift resolution to the current impasse that has polarized our community.”

In the statement, the HKGCC put forward “four fundamental actions” to defuse the ongoing turmoil.

These recommendations are: 1. “immediately enlarge the scope of public consultation at all levels, to incorporate the views of the general public to resolve social conflicts and help in policy formation”; 2. formally withdraw the Fugitive Offenders Bill; 3. hold “those officials who are responsible for the poor manner in how the Bill was handled” accountable and 4. establish a commission of inquiry to independently look into the recent events.

While the first suggestion has been put forward by the HKGCC before, the other three are new, suggesting that the business community is getting increasingly dismayed at the current administration.

A figure in the business sector believes the HKGCC statement was largely a reflection of the stance of the commerce chamber’s chairman Aron Harilela.

As far as other key members in the business community are concerned, they actually don’t have much opinion as to whether the government should set up an independent inquiry or withdraw the bill.

All they want to see, according to the person, is restoration of social stability as soon as possible.

In the meantime, another business heavyweight, James Tien Pei-chun, one of the four incumbent honorary chairpersons of the Liberal Party, has publicly called on Lam to step down.

Tien said in no uncertain terms that the Yuen Long incident has raised widespread concerns among society that the current administration is no longer fit to govern the city, so much so it has to rely on “mob rule”.

As of Tuesday night, a total of 11 suspects have been arrested in connection with the Yuen Long attacks.

A government figure told us that they hope to restore public confidence in the police and the Lam administration by hunting down high-profile gang leaders as swiftly as possible.

Yet the problem is, while it could take up to years, if not decades, to build public confidence in the administration’s governance, such confidence can be completely ruined overnight.

The appalling violence by suspected gangsters in Yuen Long has not only come as a shattering blow to citizens, it has also seriously undermined the government’s credibility, which was already hanging by a thin thread.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 23

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.