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Hong Kong protests

Protests deepen Hong Kong's rift over China

Rallies take a more anti-Beijing tone as number of violent incidents grows

Aviation workers and others staged a protest Friday at the Hong Kong International Airport after last Sunday's mob attack.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- The protest movement sparked by a controversial extradition bill is inflaming tensions in Hong Kong over the territory's relationship with mainland China, with violence stoking resentment that threatens to create a vicious cycle.

Travelers arriving at Hong Kong International Airport on Friday were greeted by a protest that drew more than 1,000 people, including airline employees, who chanted "Free Hong Kong" and other slogans to highlight the situation in the territory.

It was the latest in a string of protests that have taken place nearly every weekend since June. But the turmoil has intensified since last Sunday night, when men in white shirts wielding clubs attacked people, including black-clad protesters believed to have been returning from a demonstration, at a train station in Yuen Long near the mainland.

Hong Kong police have acknowledged the involvement of organized crime in the incident, which left 45 injured, and had arrested 12 people in connection with the attack as of Friday.

Because the Hong Kong organized crime groups, known as triads, do not have any particular political leanings, speculation has swirled that they were hired to attack protesters.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho was accused of masterminding the incident after he was seen shaking hands with men in white in the area after the attack. While he denied any involvement, his office and the graves of his parents were later defaced.

Police refused to give permission for a march in Yuen Long on Saturday, citing a high risk of clashes between demonstrators and local residents. Outright denials are rare, as Hong Kong's Basic Law, the territory's mini-constitution, guarantees freedom of assembly.

Many protesters have developed a deep mistrust of police, particularly after the late response to Sunday's attack, and expect authorities to suppress unapproved marches by force. An alternative proposal has emerged: meeting under the guise of commemorating the death of former Chinese Premier Li Peng -- who led the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown -- to take advantage of an ordinance that says religious gatherings and funerals do not require advance notice to police.

The rifts opened by the protests have deepened as a movement previously focused on stopping the extradition bill, which would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to the mainland, have gradually taken on a more anti-Beijing cast.

Demonstrations have spread this month to areas closer to mainland China. A rally was held July 13 in the border town of Sheung Shui to protest against Chinese traders who buy goods in Hong Kong to resell across the border. On Sunday, demonstrators defaced the national emblem on Beijing's Liaison Office. 

The demonstrations have raised the hackles of pro-establishment Hong Kongers and sparked large-scale counter-protests.

Hong Kong police used 55 canisters of tear gas and five rounds of rubber bullets to clear marchers from streets on Sunday. The use of force to deal with more extreme protesters risks further fueling resentment against authorities, creating a vicious cycle.

While the demonstrations will likely shrink in size, antagonism between the protesters and police could deepen, leading to violence that threatens Hong Kong society, warned A2 Global Risk, an international consultancy with an office in Hong Kong.

The conflict has even spread beyond Hong Kong's borders. In Australia, a sit-in organized by Hong Kong exchange students at Queensland University in support of the protests was disrupted by mainland Chinese students singing the national anthem. Scuffles broke out between the two sides.

The weeks of unrest are starting to take an economic toll. The group organizing Hong Kong's first-ever international motor show postponed the event, previously slated for December, until next July, citing "the recent sociopolitical situation."

The turmoil has also driven a surge of interest in emigrating out of the territory. Midland Immigration Consultancy reported a surge in inquiries in June and July compared with May, and a survey by the company found that 40% of respondents were considering leaving. Portugal, a European Union member with relatively lax immigration restrictions, was a popular choice, the consultancy said.

Some business groups and even pro-China former lawmakers are calling on Chief Executive Carrie Lam to accept some of the protesters' demands to avoid further turmoil.

A "Lennon Wall" with messages expressing solidarity with the protesters was set up in a government office.

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