Hong Kong was bracing for fresh clashes on Saturday as activists vowed to defy a police ban and rally against suspected triad gangs who beat up pro-democracy demonstrators last weekend.
Public anger has been raging since last Sunday when a gang of men in white t-shirts, armed with poles and batons, set upon anti-government protesters and bystanders in a station and on a train, leaving at least 45 people needing hospital treatment.
The brazen assault was the latest escalation in seven weeks of unprecedented political violence that shows little sign of abating as the city’s pro-Beijing leaders refuse to budge.
Hong Kong has been plunged into its worst crisis in recent history after millions of demonstrators took to the streets — and sporadic violent confrontations erupted between police and pockets of hardcore protesters.
The demonstrations were triggered by a controversial bill which would have allowed extraditions to mainland China but have evolved into a call for wider democratic reforms and a halt to sliding freedoms.
Saturday’s banned rally will be held where last Sunday’s attack took place in Yuen Long, a town in Hong Kong near the Chinese border where many of the surrounding villages are known for triad connections and their staunch support for the pro-Beijing establishment.
Police have been heavily criticised for being too slow to respond to Sunday’s violence, fueling accusations of collusion or turning a blind eye to the pro-government mob — allegations the force have denied.
Police say they have arrested 12 people so far in connection with Sunday’s violence, nine of whom have known triad links.
In a rare move, Hong Kong police banned Saturday’s rally saying they feared reprisal attacks against villagers from protesters.
But social messaging channels used to organise the largely leaderless movement have quickly filled up with vows from people to join in.
Some suggested holding a “shopping spree” in Yuen Long, others for a mass gathering of Pokemon Go, a popular mobile phone game.
Others suggested, sarcastically, it could be a location to mourn the death on Wednesday of notorious Chinese communist hardliner Li Peng, noting that religious gatherings do not need police permission.
Beijing has labelled the protests as “extreme illegal violence”, but has left it to the city’s semi-autonomous government to deal with the situation.
City leader Carrie Lam has shown no sign of backing down beyond agreeing to suspend the extradition bill.
On Wednesday China issued a stark reminder that its army could be deployed in Hong Kong if city authorities requested support in maintaining “public order”, something local authorities have said they have no intention of doing.
Protesters also plan to march on Sunday through a district where riot police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at projectile-hurling protesters the week before.