HONG KONG: Overnight, Hong Kong became a war zone.
A city once ranked among the top ten safest cities in the world by The Economist suddenly became one of the most dangerous places to be in.
Pictures of men holding long knives, video recordings of violence against passers-by on trains, and rumours of further attacks from suspected pro-China triads surfaced online.
Angry and prepared, groups of masked men in white t-shirts stormed into Yuen Long MTR station last Sunday night (Jul 21), a few hours after an anti-extradition protest ended.
With bamboo sticks and metal rods in hand, they forced open the closed MTR gates and made their way onto the trains, attacking anyone in sight.
READ: Behind Hong Kong’s extradition bill protests – a looming divide, growing pessimism about the future, a commentary
The police arrived at the scene thirty minutes later. But by then, the damage had already been done. Over 45 people were already wounded, some bloodied from their injuries.
The next day, photos of armed men circling Yuen Long were posted online.
Businesses in Yuen Long closed early as a safety precaution. Many citizens made their way home hours before 6pm, hoping to avoid any sudden outbreak of violence or subway lockdown.
A HEAVY TOLL
Although there were no reports of further attacks in Yuen Long that night, the assaults made Hong Kongers like myself feel unsafe and questioning of whether we could still rely on the police to keep us safe and maintain law and order — especially when it took them so long to respond and get to the crime scene.
The extradition bill has already divided Hong Kong nearly as much as it has united the city. And now, the fear of reprisal for those who protest against the bill ripples through the air.
From the initial peaceful protests that gathered over two million people in June, to the brutal attacks, it’s undeniable that the bill has taken a heavy toll on the entire community, and is now causing many sides to resort to using a degree of violence to make their voices heard.
SHOCK AND SADNESS
I, like many others, am angered by all the violence that has erupted over this week, and dissatisfied by the mellow responses and inaction the Hong Kong government and Chief Executive Carrie Lam has offered.
At the same time, I’m also shocked and saddened to see how peaceful protests have escalated into vandalism and violence, and how developments threaten to escalate even further.
Protesters have not been entirely innocent. Apart from the storming of the Legislative Council building, some have also desecrated the graves of pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho's parents this week.
Many Hong Kongers fear the growing possibility of intervention from Beijing, after Beijing authorities indicated that Hong Kong can request for assistance from China to “maintain public order”.
More protests have been planned for this weekend but Hong Kongers are quickly losing hope after being repeatedly ignored by the government and feeling betrayed by the police.
There is a sense that the very people who should be keeping Hong Kong safe are not fighting in our favour after being slow to respond to reports of attacks on protesters. It’s easy to see why Hong Kongers are frustrated and more loudly demanding for Lam to step down from her role as Chief Executive.
These demands are partly in hopes that any new chief executive who take up the mantle would stand alongside his or her citizens. Many Hong Kongers feel nothing but distrust and disappointment towards Lam.
But even if Lam resigns, there is no guarantee Hong Kong politics and the kind of leader it throws up will change fundamentally. Chief Executive candidates are voted by an electoral college - by the Legislative Council and a mix of political, business and trade elites.
What this means is no matter who takes on the role of chief executive next, he or she will have to be vetted by Chinese officials and evaluated based on whether the candidate is capable of maintaining a successful and “smooth” working relationship between Hong Kong and China.
It’s impossible for Lam to make a clear stand on the bill without jeopardising her career and I sympathise with her for that.
However, as the city’s top leader, her first priority must be to protect Hong Kong citizens, to bring the masked men to justice. Without swift, decisive action on this front, Lam risks looking like the government condones the use of force against protesters.
No doubt, she also needs to address whether she will be withdrawing the bill and at some point, tackle deep-seated concerns Hong Kongers have about their future. But restoring security must take precedence now.
Lam’s inaction is causing paranoia within the city. We still don’t know why suspected triad gangs decided to go on a rampage out of the blue to beat up pro-democracy protesters in such an organised fashion and who’s backing them.
It’s also still unclear how authorities intend to deter the use of force and intimidation as the protests continue.
Lam took on the role as chief executive but she wasn’t in sync with Hong Kongers’ outlook, pre-occupations and worries. This is why she was blindsided by the political backlash over the extradition bill. This is why she didn’t realise what was at stake was the future of Hong Kong.
THE CITY HONG KONGERS LOVE
Hong Kongers are still hopeful about the withdrawal of the extradition bill. But after the situation turned sour with violent gang fights and delayed police responses, time is running out.
Will protesters meet with retribution every time they decide to organise? Will the government not protect them from violent retaliation? Will Hong Kongers feel safe again in their city?
The clock is ticking for Lam to gain back citizens’ trust, before the situation deteriorates and more blood is shed. Hong Kongers deserve to get back the safe city we love.
Doris Lam will be graduating from the University of Hong Kong with a Bachelor of Arts in 2020.