With new arrests, Hong Kong’s police try to change the narrative
By Tiffany May and Austin Ramzy
The images shocked Hong Kong and put the city’s authorities under a global spotlight. In shaky smartphone videos, a group of unidentified men wearing white T-shirts and wielding sticks and clubs set upon an unarmed group of residents at a subway station, some of them returning from a pro-democracy protest. The police were nowhere in sight.
On Wednesday, more than a year later, Hong Kong’s police moved decisively to address the assault — in part, by arresting a lawmaker who recorded it.
Lam Cheuk-ting, a former anti-corruption investigator, was one of two lawmakers arrested in a continuing crackdown on dissent as the Chinese Communist Party tightens its grip on the territory. As part of that effort, Hong Kong authorities are increasingly trying to change the narrative, portraying the clampdown as a necessary law-and-order remedy for a city they say is increasingly ungovernable.
Hong Kong police have faced widespread criticism after protesters accused them of ignoring calls for help on July 21, 2019, at the Yuen Long subway station, where at least 45 people were injured when men carrying sticks and metal bars attacked commuters and protesters.
At a news conference Wednesday after the arrests, Chan Tin-chu, a senior police official, described the Yuen Long incident as a “clash” and said that news reports, including footage livestreamed by a reporter as well as Lam, had wrongly given the impression that it was a one-sided assault. The footage was widely seen and used by The New York Times in a video analysis of the attack.
“Unfortunately, the camera only captured the actions of one side most of the time, and some commentary has led people to misinterpret that this is a so-called indiscriminate attack,” he said.
Beijing’s efforts to tighten its grip on Hong Kong, a semiautonomous former British colony handed back to China more than 20 years ago, set off huge and sometimes violent protests last year. Frustrated by the inability of local officials to stop the unrest, Chinese officials in June imposed a broad national security law that empowers Hong Kong authorities to take a stronger hand in quelling dissent and punishing those who espouse ideas loathed by Beijing, such as Hong Kong independence from the mainland.
Lam, a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council who has said he showed up at Yuen Long to protect local residents, was among a number of people arrested on Wednesday who were accused of taking part in the attack. He was also arrested along with another lawmaker, Ted Hui, because of their presence at an anti-government protest in the Tuen Mun district on July 6, 2019, the Democratic Party of Hong Kong said in a Facebook post.
The police on Wednesday sought to counter accusations by protesters that they had been too slow to respond to the Yuen Long attack. While police had initially said that officers arrived on the scene 39 minutes after receiving reports, Chan said Wednesday that they had actually responded within 18 minutes. The previous time was quoted before officers had a chance to comprehensively analyze surveillance footage, he said.
Protesters also accused the police of being friendly with the men in white T-shirts, which Chan disputed. He said that an officer shown on video placing his hand on the shoulder of one of the men in white was actually giving him a commanding push, not a friendly pat, as the gesture was widely perceived at the time.
“We have to restore the truth,” Chan said, adding that accusations of police inaction and collusion were slanderous and made to further political agendas. He said that the force was firmly against any act of violence and that those who committed crimes would have to bear the consequences.
“As long as there is evidence proving you have broken the law, the police will enforce the law diligently and impartially,” he said.
Before Wednesday, police had already arrested 44 people believed to be part of the white T-shirt gang, and prosecutors had charged eight of them with rioting.
Thirteen of the 16 people detained on Wednesday are also accused of taking part in the Yuen Long attack, police said. They said the group included a bank vice president, a chef, a driver, a technical worker and others. Some of those arrested have ties to organized crime groups known as triads, Chan said.
The three others, as well as Lam, were arrested in connection with an encounter in July 2019 outside the Tuen Mun police station, when a group of people surrounded a man who was taking photos of protesters, snatched the phone away and deleted the images, according to a police statement. Police said they were detained on suspicion of “unlawful assembly,” “criminal damage,” “obstruction of justice” and “accessing electronic devices with dishonest intent.”
A Democratic Party representative said Lam and Hui had been serving as mediators when the Tuen Mun protests, which began peacefully, took a violent turn.
Hong Kong’s crackdown on dissent has been broad and sweeping. More than a dozen leading pro-democracy activists and former lawmakers were arrested in April in connection with the protests that raged in the city last year.
Protests have been muted since the national security law came into effect, but some, like Lam, continue to speak out against the city’s new limits.
In video footage of what looked like police officers at his door on Wednesday morning, Lam asked why he was being arrested in connection to the Yuen Long attack.
“The crime of rioting,” an officer said in a video shared by a Democratic Party staff member.
“Me, taking part in a riot? The July 21 riot?” Lam said in apparent disbelief. “It’s now utter absurdity in Hong Kong.”
A representative of the Democratic Party also shared a letter the police commissioner sent to Lam this month commending him for his response to the attacks.
“You’ve fulfilled your civic responsibility by reporting this serious crime to the police,” said the letter, which was postmarked Aug. 3.
Wu Chi-wai, chairman of the Democratic Party, said in a phone interview that Lam had been transformed from victim to defendant. “This is a completely unreasonable situation,” he said.
During the attack, a group of men in white shirts entered the train station and struck unarmed commuters with wooden bats. Lam, 43, was filmed warning commuters in the station about the dangerous surroundings, but was later among those beaten and injured inside a stationary train carriage.
Hui, 38, frequently served as a mediator in the protests last year, issuing warnings to the police over a loudspeaker and encouraging protesters to go home safely. He filed a lawsuit against a police officer in June over the 2019 shooting of a protester, but the case was blocked last week by Hong Kong’s secretary of justice.
A few days after filing the suit, Hui was detained on suspicion of unlawful assembly, an accusation he described as retaliatory.