Organized gangs of masked men clashed Monday with Hong Kong protesters, prompting a leading Hong Kong security consulting firm to warn that police are likely to use “decisive force” to end the Occupy Central demonstrations in the near future.
The security firm, Steve Vickers & Associates, is led by a former Hong Kong police commander who advises corporate clients in one of the world’s major trading centers. Driving the firm’s assessment was the role in the assaults of pro-Beijing organized crime outfits, including members of the notorious Triad gangs, with little intervention by government authorities.
“The blatant Triad involvement will cause longer term difficulties in policing Hong Kong, post Occupy Central,” the firm said in a statement. “This situation is exacerbated by perceived inaction by government against senior level Triad office-bearers.”
Hong Kong protesters, many of them students or recent graduates, have occupied three parts of Hong Kong for more than two weeks now, disrupting traffic and many businesses. Protesters are demanding that China and its Hong Kong administrators allow citizens to choose their own candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive in the 2017 election, as opposed to having a committee loyal to Beijing pick who can run.
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On Monday, a group of counterprotesters, some wearing masks, showed up at the main protest site, in Admiralty. They attempted to dismantle barricades, flung themselves at protesters and then hung around for hours, mixing it up with police and trying to pick fights, according to reports from Hong Kong media.
Similar organized gangs attempted to shut down a ongoing protest in the Mong Kok section of Hong Kong a week ago Friday but were unsuccessful after police intervened and protesters brought in reinforcements. Some 19 people were arrested in that skirmish, and police later said that some were Triad members.
On Monday, before the scuffles in Admiralty, Hong Kong police reported that up to 200 gang members from two of the city’s major triad groups had infiltrated the protest camps.
It has long been known in Hong Kong, and among academic researchers, that Beijing struck a deal with Hong Kong’s Triads as a part of Great Britain’s handover of the territory to China in 1997. Under this arrangement, the Triads could continue to operate – engaging in prostitution, smuggling and, increasingly, real estate – so long as they remained loyal to Beijing.
The Vickers firm made reference to that deal Monday, stating that since the 1997 handover, some high-level Triad members have received “mainland recognition and titles.”
Hong Kong authorities have at least twice rejected suggestions that they have allowed organized gangs to assault and intimidate protests. They have repeatedly urged protesters to end their occupations, both for their own safety and to end disruptions to Hong Kong residents.
The protests are dragging on largely because neither the government nor protest groups have agreed to conditions for negotiations, much less what might be on the table. Hong Kong’s chief executive, C.Y. Leung, who’s also known as Leung Chun-ying, said Sunday that there was “almost zero” chance of Beijing agreeing to the protesters’ terms for reconsidering Hong Kong’s 2017 elections. He said the protests had “spun out of control.”
The situation is further complicated by splits within the protest movement itself. Older pro-democracy activists have urged the younger occupiers to claim victory, retreat and plan a new phase of civil disobedience. But student groups in Admiralty refuse to budge. Meanwhile, many demonstrators in Mong Kok, a tightly packed, less affluent section of Hong Kong, say their protests are independent of those in Admiralty. Clear leaders are hard to come by.
Here in Beijing, the state media of the Communist Party has attempted to blame the United States for the Hong Kong protests. In a commentary published Friday, the People’s Daily newspaper accused the National Endowment for Democracy, a Washington-based nonprofit group, of facilitating the Hong Kong protests as part of a U.S. strategy to undermine China and other governments.
“The U.S. may enjoy the sweet taste of interfering in other countries’ internal affairs,” the commentary said. “But on the issue of Hong Kong it stands little chance of overcoming the determination of the Chinese government to maintain stability and prosperity.”
On Friday, deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf rejected China’s claims, saying the U.S. government was not “manipulating the activities of any person, group or political party in Hong Kong.”
Vickers said Monday that, despite all the political intrigue, many Hong Kongers have seen their city disrupted by the protesters, reducing immediate support for their occupations.
By Monday evening Hong Kong time, the counterdemonstrators had withdrawn, according to local media and Occupy Central leaders. Protesters were reported to be refortifying barricades on key street, including some who were using concrete to buttress makeshift road blockades.
“The longer that Occupy Central movement continues to disrupt daily life in Hong Kong, the more likely that civilian on civilian clashes will occur. With that, the probability that decisive force will be required by the police to end the occupation” also grows, Vickers said.