Exactly a year ago on July 21, over 100 rod-wielding men – with connections to triad members – stormed the Yuen Long MTR station, indiscriminately attacking civilians. Among the 45 people injured were journalists, protesters, commuters and Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting. Several other beatings took place in the area, as white-clad men with sticks chased after people.
The Hong Kong Police Force stands accused of colluding with the attackers and was criticised for arriving at the scene 39 minutes after initial reports. Few arrests were made, and uniformed officers were spotted walking away from the station as emergency calls were ignored and nearby police stations shut their gates.
On the anniversary of the attack, HKFP examines how government officials and representatives of the force have framed the incident over the past year.
Day of the attack: ‘Violence’ condemned
During early hours on July 22, 2019, both the government and police issued a statement to “strongly condemn” violent acts. The statements led with criticism of the police-protester clashes in Sheung Wan, where the Chinese national emblem at Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong was defaced. The chaos took place after a mass demonstration in opposition to the now-axed extradition bill.
The statements went on to mention the Yuen Long incident with police saying that “some people attacked commuters at the platforms of the Yuen Long MTR Station and train compartments, resulting in multiple injuries.” The government gave a similar account: “Some people congregated at the platforms of the MTR station and train compartments, attacking commuters. It led to confrontations and injuries.”
Following morning: ‘Shocking’ attack
At a press conference the following morning, reporters fired questions about the police handling of the Yuen Long incident at Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Secretary for Security John Lee and the then-police commissioner Stephen Lo. Lam described the attacks as “shocking” and said the whole city was “furious” at such an “unscrupulous disregard of the law.”
Lo also hit out at allegations of collusion, saying police were in opposition to all violators of the law.
“Let alone they are triads, we are irreconcilable,” Lo said.
A week on: Hong Kong’s no.2 under fire
Five days after the Yuen Long attacks, the government called the assailants “thugs” for the first time. At a media briefing on July 26, Chief Secretary for Administration Matthew Cheung said: “Thugs arbitrarily attacked unarmed citizens in Yuen Long MTR station – such behaviour is outrageous.”
Cheung also admitted there was a “gap” between the police handling of the incident and people’s expectations, adding that he was “absolutely willing” to apologise to the public over the controversy. However, his remark stirred dissent from several police groups, with officers voicing their discontent through an online campaign called “Matthew Cheung does not represent me.”
The city’s number two official later asked people not to “dwell on” on his remark and said people should “look ahead.”
A week on: Police ‘saddened’
During a police press conference on July 26, 2019, Anthony Tsang – who was the acting commander of the New Territories North region – said police had not sent officers to Yuen Long on the night of the attack because they deemed it was of “lower risk” than the skirmishes on the Hong Kong Island.
Tsang said police did their utmost to deal with the incident, but admitted the operation was “slightly worse” than what the public had expected.
“We are very saddened, for we could not stop the incident causing injuries in time,” he said.
November: Ex-top cop denies collusion
Last November, former police chief Stephen Lo retired from his role amid criticism of the force’s behaviour during the city-wide pro-democracy movement. In an interview with Sing Tao published on November 18, 2019, Lo was defensive over claims that police deliberately ignored emergency calls. He said many people had dialled 999 while police manpower was concentrated on Hong Kong Island. He said there were “incidents” in Yuen Long and police had tried its best to adjust its manpower.
“Police and triads are absolutely irreconcilable,” Lo said.
November: New police chief defends force
As Chris Tang succeeded Lo’s position as the city’s top cop, he began to give a different account of what happened in Yuen Long. In an interview with East Week Magazine published on November 24, Tang claimed the incident had gotten “bigger and bigger” as a lawmaker had brought a group of black-shirted people to the area.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting stood accused by pro-Beijing groups and newspapers of leading protesters to Yuen Long and “stirring up” confrontations between the white-clad men and protesters. They claimed it eventually led to a “fight” between the two sides.
Tang said the force had immediately sent riot police to the scene but, under “complicated circumstances,” the performance of the force was very different from what citizens may expect.
This particular part of the interview was reported by other news outlets, including RTHK and pro-Beijing paper Bastille Post, but it can no longer be found in the original article.
December: ‘A group leading protesters’
Former Police Public Relations Branch chief superintendent Kong Wing-cheung blamed protesters for the Yuen Long attacks a month later. In an interview with iCable News on December 30, Kong said people should take a “broader view” and claimed the attacks were caused by “a group people leading protesters to Yuen Long.” He later said such remarks were his “personal observation” rather than a conclusion from any police investigation.
March: ‘Too early’ for police apology
The new police chief told Ming Pao on March 16 this year that the Yuen Long attacks were “complicated,” claiming that the whole incident involved “many parts.” He said some “thugs” had assaulted people in the afternoon, while other “thugs” – coming from outside to Yuen Long – sprayed water from a fire hose.
“Some people have deliberately enlarged a certain part for inciting hatred,” Tang said.
At a Yuen Long District Council meeting on May 12, Tang repeated a similar narrative by saying police would investigate violence from both the “white-clad thugs” and “black-clad thugs.” He added there was room for improvement in terms of the police handling of the July 21 attacks, but said it was “too early” to make an apology.
May: Watchdog notes ‘gang fight’
The Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) published a report in May on police behaviour during the last year’s large-scale protests and unrest. The Yuen Long attacks were among six significant days that the police watchdog had looked into.
In the report, police said the public were “misled” into seeing the Yuen Long attacks as a “one-sided indiscriminate terrorist attack.” The force said the incident was in fact “started off as a gang fight involving a sizeable number of participants from both sides.”
The IPCC said police showed “inadequacies” in collecting and collating actionable intelligence in a timely manner to enable timely action regarding the attacks. But the IPCC, which lacks investigation powers, cleared the force of misconduct over the incident.
August: ‘Evenly matched’ and ‘equally equipped’ standoff
On August 26, police arrested 13 more men – including Democratic Party legislator Lam Cheuk-ting who was injured in the attacks – on suspicion of rioting inside the Yuen Long MTR station. Lam and six others were charged and granted bail a day after.
Senior Superintendent Chan Tin-chu of the New Territories North headquarters’ crime squad said at a media briefing following the arrests that the public had been “misled” by “one-sided live streams” into viewing the incident as an “indiscriminate attack.”
“The two groups in the standoff in Yuen Long were actually evenly-matched and equally-equipped,” he said.
Chan claimed officers responded to the incident within 18 minutes, which contradicted earlier police account of 39 minutes. He also hit out at allegations of collusion between the force and the attackers, saying police action was “misrepresented.”
Referring to a widely circulated video that showed a riot police officer touching the shoulder of an alleged assistant, Chan said: “The act of pushing them was an order for them to leave. But it was distorted by ill-intended people who slandered the force as colluding with the triads.”
The arrest of Lam and Chan’s remarks stirred widespread controversy, with critics accusing police of attempting to “alter history and erase facts.” But police chief Chris Tang rejected the claims a day later: “Police have no intention to rewrite history, because history will pass a fair judgement [on the incident].”
Responding to Chan’s remarks, Tang described it as “unnecessary” and said officers should focus on the facts and evidence: “Some unnecessary description would lead to different speculation.”
He also told the press that the 18-minute response time Chan mentioned was referring to the arrival time quick response team. It took the force more than 30 minutes to deploy the team to the scene from the moment they received emergency calls and it was “not ideal,” Tang said.
As of August 28, 58 people – aged 18 to 61 – have been arrested in connection to the case. Among them, 15 were charged with rioting, while eight faced separate charges of conspiracy to wound with intent.