Thousands of protesters including airline and travel industry staff gathered at Hong Kong's international airport on Friday in a spontaneous demonstration against plans to allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland Chinese courts.
They were also protesting the Hong Kong police force's handling of vicious attacks last weekend by men in white shirts, some of whom have been found to have links to the city's triad organizations, that left 45 people in hospital and one person in critical condition.
Some sat down displaying posters that read "Tourist Warning! The Hong Kong government hires thugs to beat protesters" on the floor of the arrivals hall, while others greeted arriving passengers with chants of "Go Hong Kong!" and "Free Hong Kong!"
Others played video footage of the attacks on train passengers in Yuen Long for passersby to watch.
Victims and eyewitnesses have demanded to know why it took more than half an hour for officers to respond to distress calls after the attacks began in Yuen Long MTR station on Sunday night.
Hong Kong's second-in-command Matthew Cheung apologized on Friday for the police's handling of the attacks, but stopped short of ordering a public inquiry, one of the key demands of protesters since several weeks of mass demonstrations and sit-ins began on June 6.
"We are engaged now, if I put it rightly, in a reflective process on the whole issue," Cheung told journalists. "But our position has been explained clearly that we believe it's better to be pursued through the existing mechanism."
As well as an inquiry into police use of tear gas, rubber and textile bullets and batons on unarmed protesters on June 12, protesters are also demanding the formal withdrawal of amendments to the city's Fugitive Offenders Ordinance which would enable the rendition of suspects to face trial in mainland Chinese courts.
Angry about attacks
A member of the airport ground staff surnamed Hui said he is still very angry about last Sunday's attacks in Yuen Long, which was why he wanted to attend a protest.
"People from all walks of life and from different groups will come out, including us train drivers," Hui said. "This is a very good opportunity, because we can let people from all over the world know what is happening in Hong Kong."
"[They will see that] we in Hong Kong can hold very peaceful gatherings to say something as important as this," he said.
Staff at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital also staged a sit-in on the hospital tennis court on Friday, in protest at the police force's handling of the Yuen Long attacks, when dozens of unidentifed men in white shirts beat up train passengers with wooden and metal poles.
Police were at the scene for around one hour before moving in, and later claimed they were waiting for backup. And while 11 arrests have been made, none has yet been for a violent offense, though 45 people were injured, with one left in a critical condition.
A second group of more than 100 civil servants has issued another petition calling on the administration of Carrie Lam to set up an independent commission of inquiry.
The letter, the second of its kind this week, hit out at the government for failing to respond adequately to protesters' demand, and at police for their failure to prevent so many attacks at Yuen Long.
Determined to march
Max Chung, whose application for a protest march in Yuen Long on Saturday has been turned down out of fears for public safety, said he would march to the Yuen Long MTR Station anyway, in spite of fears that the march could be attacked again by pro-China thugs or possibly triad gangs.
An anti-extradition protester who gave only a nickname Nicole said a friend of hers was injured in the Yuen Long attack on Sunday.
"He hadn't gone down [to the platform] yet, but he was beaten up on the upper concourse," she said. "He also fought back against a few of them and then he fled."
She said many people are concerned that the police were acting in collusion with the white-shirted attackers.
"A couple of days before July 21, we all received an online post saying that ... if people went to Yuen Long they would get beaten up," Nicole said.
She said two nearby police stations in Yuen Long and Tuen Mun were closed, and people were having trouble getting through to the 999 emergency number.
"This was all coordinated," she said. "Otherwise, how could you have such a coincidence?"
Dozens of men in white shirts gathered near the Yoho Mall, part of the Yuen Long MTR subway station development, at around 6.00 p.m on Sunday, according to social media posts.
Some wore slogans that read "Protect Yuen Long" and "Guarding our homeland."
Members of the group began attacking and intimidating members of the public standing on an suburban rail platform, while another group entered the adjacent subway station at around 11.00 p.m.
Some social media reports said they were targeting anyone wearing black, in the belief that they had attended a mass anti-extradition rally earlier in the day, where protesters typically wear black T-shirts. However, other reports said they were attacking people indiscriminately.
Some passengers fought back with umbrellas and even a fire hose during the attacks, which lasted for nearly an hour before riot police moved in, according to eyewitness and local media reports.
Many in Hong Kong suspect pro-China lawmaker Junius Ho of involvement with the attack, after video footage of him shaking hands with men in white shirts was posted online. Ho has since said he was just chatting with passers-by.
China role suspected
Others believe the attacks may have had Beijing's tacit encouragement after Li Jiyi, an official from China’s Hong Kong liaison office, called on local residents to drive away any activists.
In a recording obtained by Reuters, Li can be heard telling a community banquet for hundreds of villagers in Hong Kong’s rural New Territories on July 11 to protect their towns and to chase anti-extradition protesters away.
“We won’t allow them to come to Yuen Long to cause trouble,” he said, to a burst of applause.
“Even though there are a group of protesters trained to throw bricks and iron bars, we still have a group of Yuen Long residents with the persistence and courage to maintain social peace and protect our home," Li is heard saying.
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said people had put two and two together.
"No sooner had he said this than [the attacks happened], so everyone now thinks that mainland China played some kind of role," Lui said.
A Central Liaison Office official strongly denied any association with the attacks, in comments reported by the semi-official Hong Kong China News Agency on Thursday.
"The Liaison Office absolutely has to issue a strenuous denial to wipe away this association in people's minds," Lui said.
Demand to withdraw
Protesters are calling on Lam to formally withdraw amendments tabled to the Legislative Council (LegCo) that would allow the rendition of alleged suspects from Hong Kong to face criminal proceedings in mainland China.
They also want an amnesty for anyone arrested during mass protests against the amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance in recent weeks.
Critics say the move would undermine the legal "firewall" between two very different political and judicial systems, and the U.S. has warned that it will call into question Hong Kong's status as a separate trading port.
The amendments are widely seen as a threat to Hong Kong's way of life, which was supposed to have been protected by the "one country, two systems" framework under which the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997.
If they become law, the city could lose its status as a separate legal jurisdiction and trading entity, while journalists, visitors, rights activists, dissidents, democratic politicians, and members of the business community could be targeted for words and actions deemed illegal by Chinese officials.
They could then be extradited to face trial in Chinese courts, which are directly controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Students, march organizers, and pro-democracy lawmakers have all rejected government attempts at initiating discussions, demanding an amnesty for all those arrested in connection with recent protests, an end to the official description of protesters as "rioting", and the formal withdrawal of the planned amendments before the end of the current LegCo term in 2020.
Lam has said the amendments are "dead" and will expire at the end of the current LegCo term in 2020, but campaigners say her assertion offers no legal guarantees.
Reported by Wong Lok-to and Lee Wang-yam for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Lu Xi and Lin Ping for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.