HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, on Monday condemned violent clashes between a number of protesters and the police over the weekend, as her government scrambled to assert its authority after several increasingly volatile demonstrations and a surge in anti-police sentiment.
“We are here to thank our police officers for safeguarding Hong Kong’s safety at the front lines,” Mrs. Lam told reporters at a hospital where she was visiting several police officers who were injured in the clashes on Sunday. “They fulfilled their duties responsibly and were very professional and restrained, but they were intentionally attacked by people who I really think we can describe as rioters.”
On Sunday, tens of thousands of people attended a peaceful rally urging Mrs. Lam to fully withdraw a contentious bill and resign. By the evening, however, the demonstration had descended into a frenzied brawl between a small group of protesters and police officers in riot gear in a luxury shopping mall in Sha Tin, in the New Territories region of northern Hong Kong.
The clashes were the latest in a pattern that has emerged in Hong Kong in recent weeks in which mass rallies have ended in violent confrontations between a small group of mostly younger demonstrators armed with umbrellas and helmets and police officers wielding batons, pepper spray and shields.
Pro-democracy lawmakers and activists say the protesters’ increasing willingness to adopt more forceful means reflects their frustration with a political system they see as having left them powerless by denying them the right to directly elect the city’s leadership.
Mrs. Lam declared the bill “dead” last week but stopped short of fully withdrawing it, a stance that continued to drive a large turnout at rallies this past weekend. The Hong Kong leader may be in a bind: She is under pressure from Beijing to assert the government’s control over the semiautonomous territory, but her refusal to give in to the protesters’ demands seems at least in part to drive each escalation of violence.
The mass demonstrations started in early June in response to unpopular legislation that would allow extraditions to mainland China. Protesters have since expanded their demands to include universal suffrage, amnesty for protesters arrested at earlier clashes and an independent inquiry into police violence. They have also turned their anger at mainland Chinese who visit Hong Kong to shop or to buy up medicine, powdered baby formula and other goods for resale across the border.
In a dramatic escalation of tensions, some protesters bashed their way into the city’s legislative building on July 1, the anniversary of Britain’s 1997 return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule. That was followed by confrontations in the district of Mong Kok and on Saturday, a protest in a border town against the so-called parallel traders that also descended into conflict.
On Sunday, protesters were seen throwing umbrellas and plastic bottles at officers in riot gear while the police deployed pepper spray and struck at demonstrators with batons and shields. In surreal scenes that played on a loop on local television stations on Monday, several young, mostly masked protesters beat up a police officer who was lying on the ground.
Several pro-democracy lawmakers criticized the police’s handling of the demonstration in Sha Tin, saying that the use of full riot gear was disproportionate to the threat posed by the protesters and their umbrellas and improvised shields.
But Stephen Lo, the Hong Kong police commissioner, defended his officers’ actions at the mall in Sha Tin.
“When there were people breaking the law, should the police really just allow them to do so?” he said early Monday morning, referring to the protesters in the mall as “rioters.”
“The police were working very hard, but their diligence has only been greeted with accusations,” he added, while vowing to investigate Sunday night’s unrest with “full force.”
Mr. Lo said that as of Monday morning, at least 40 people had been arrested and that about 10 police officers were injured. Twenty-eight people were admitted to the hospital for injuries and by Monday afternoon, two remained in critical condition, the Hong Kong Hospital Authority said.
Mrs. Lam’s latest remarks labeling the Sha Tin protesters as “rioters” will almost certainly fuel further anger among demonstrators, who were already planning more marches, including one on Sunday in the city’s financial district. That label has been at the center of one of the demands of the protesters, who argue that people who participated in a June 12 demonstration that ended in clashes were not rioters.
While much of the protesters’ frustrations have centered on Mrs. Lam, the focus in recent weeks has shifted to the police, who drew widespread condemnation from the public after officers fired rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse protesters. Since then, the police have mostly tried to project restraint but have appeared unable to prevent the protests from spinning out of control.
“Normal people who attend marches don’t use violent means to attack the police like this,” said John Lee, Hong Kong’s security minister, as he spoke alongside Mrs. Lam on Monday. “We can see that those who deliberately and violently attack the police are highly organized.”
Mrs. Lam also reiterated that she intended to serve until her term as chief executive ends in 2022. She indicated that she would not make further concessions on the extradition bill despite the protests.
“What prompted the resistance no longer exists,” she said, referring to the suspension of the legislation.
“I know our responses may not fully satisfy those who are voicing these demands, but this is not my personal problem.”