Parallel trading

Hong Kong protest sees violence, pepper spray and arrests, but triads stay away

Police use pepper spray amid chaotic scenes as protest against traders continues into the night

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 March, 2015, 5:28pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 March, 2015, 4:54pm

Chaotic scenes hit the narrow streets of Yuen Long yesterday as clashes marred the latest protest against mainland traders - but police fears of a violent counter-protest involving triads proved unfounded.

Police used pepper spray to break up clashes as the 200 or so protesters and opponents exchanged foul-mouthed insults as they marched from Long Ping MTR station to Sau Fu Street, where a cluster of shops serve mainland buyers.

Watch: Hong Kong police use pepper spray after scuffles break out at anti-parallel trading protest

The march was the third in a month targeting so-called parallel traders, who buy goods in Hong Kong to sell across the border. Demonstrations in Tuen Mun and Sha Tin last month turned ugly, and police sources told the South China Morning Post last week that they had warned rural strongmen against calling in triad henchmen to confront marchers.

Disputes yesterday occasionally escalated, and police moved in with pepper spray. Several reporters were also sprayed, while one photographer received a wound to his chest.

Police arrested 38 people, aged 13 to 74, for offences including possession of weapons, common assault and assaulting police. Further arrests could follow, the force said.

Five officers received treatment in hospital for minor limb injuries.

The protesters, most in their 20s and 30s, chanted, "Go home and buy mainland products!" while opponents cried, "No one welcomes you guys, go home!"

Leung Kim-shing, spokesman for the North District Parallel Imports Concern Group, said today they had been rallying peacefully but scuffles broke out when a handful of members of the pro-government Voice of Loving Hong Kong group infiltrated the march and hurled insults at protesters.

"They pointed fingers and hurled insults at us," he told RTHK. "They accused us of causing trouble when we had been rallying on an agreed route peacefully."

Voice of Loving Hong Kong chairman Ko Tat-pun denied members of his group had caused any trouble. 

"We were in casual clothes and were not holding any banners. We only wanted to take photos of the protest to record any law-breaking by protesters," he said.

Ko also alleged protesters sprayed an irritant chemical in his eyes and threatened to beat him up.

Residents appeared divided. Some sympathised with the protesters, who say parallel traders overcrowd towns and edge out stores that serve locals. Others felt the traders brought economic benefits while the protesters were the ones causing disruption.

"Many of those rural gentry are landlords of those shops [that target mainlanders]," said one woman, a law student, referring to rural leaders who led opposition to the protest.

But the owner of a hair salon said he had to close his doors, adding: "Protests like this will only make things worse."

About 30 protesters from Hong Kong Indigenous - formed by people involved in last year's Occupy pro-democracy movement and which joined last month's protests - wore armour under their jackets.

"This [armour] is purely for self-defence. We'll separate the conflicting parties should anything happen," said spokesman Ray Wong Toi-Yeung, 22.

Wong asked protesters to disperse at about 4pm and not crowd the town's main road. Some, however, took that as a signal to do the opposite. Traffic was briefly disrupted on Castle Peak Road, and groups of protesters were still in the town at 10pm.

Leung Fuk-yuen, chairman of the Sap Pat Heung rural affairs body, said indigenous villagers from Yuen Long were not involved in the clashes. 

"More than 10 coaches that villagers had originally booked to take them were cancelled," he said. "Emotions were high in some villages and so after discussion among village representatives we called off action. We wanted to avoid chaos."

Security chief Lai Tung-kwok yesterday said police would act "resolutely" should anyone break the law during the march.

Leung Che-cheung, a lawmaker and chairman of Yuen Long district council, said about 30 shops had been forced to close. Wong Tat-kwong, president of a local chamber of commerce, said its 1,000 members could sue over their losses.

Meanwhile, Secretary for Transport and Housing Anthony Cheung Bing-leung said today the government was looking at the city’s tourism capacity.

"Too many tourists can be a good thing, but also it creates pressure," he said. 

"We understand that tourism is important to Hong Kong. We hope that through policy, we can make sure that it does not have a negative impact on local residents or affect their daily lives," he said.

Cheung will fly to Beijing today with Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to attend annual meetings of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference and National People's Congress. Cheung declined to reveal if they would discuss the issue of mainland tourists during the meetings with central government officials.

State media was apparently trying to cool antagonism yesterday, while an article credited to Zhang Dinghuai, director of the semi-official Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, advised against hostile rhetoric on both sides "which would harm cross-border relations".