At least 45 people were injured, some seriously, and videos showed people being beaten on the floor and left bloodied and dazed. Police took several hours to arrive on the scene, further outraging protesters and increasing bitterness between them and the force.
No developments have so far shown any signs of dampening the protests, with a new rally already planned for Yuen Long this weekend, but nor is there any sign the government is ready to make the kind of concessions that could mollify enough anger to restore calm.
With violence becoming more common — and the terrifying thought of potential bombings raised by Friday’s raid — there is always the possibility that the Chinese government, which has so far taken a seemingly hands-off approach, will step in and exercise more control.
Turn to violence?
The use of bombs would be a huge escalation, one never before seen from the modern pro-democracy movement, which has typically been characterized by peaceful marches attended by large swaths of society. Any violence would be the actions of a tiny minority of protesters, the vast majority of whom have been and continue to be peaceful, but there is not necessarily any pathway for the largely leaderless movement to reign in its most radical elements.
Many of those protesters also believe they have no other avenue to voice their frustrations — radical lawmakers have been ejected from the legislature, and others banned from standing for office, cutting off Hong Kong’s already limited democratic organs from their influence.
Pro-democracy politicians and other members of the opposition establishment — many of whom are older and do not share the pro-independence views of many younger protesters — reacted to the storming of the legislature with shock, and attempts by them to exert control or even influence over the direction of the protests have been mostly unsuccessful.
Both Hong Kong and Chinese authorities have denied there are any plans to deploy People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops — who have a large but discreet presence in Hong Kong — to deal with the ongoing unrest, but there is no guarantee this would continue to be the case were there to be significant escalation in protesters’ tactics.
Beijing’s reaction is always the most difficult to predict to any development, due to the lack of transparency over how it handles Hong Kong — and its influence and direction of the city’s semi-autonomous government.
Officials reacted furiously to the targeting on Sunday of the Chinese government’s Liaison Office, Beijing’s top representative in the city, where a splinter group from the main march threw eggs and vandalized a government seal in front of the building.
A spokesman for the State Council, China’s ruling body, said the actions “openly challenge the authority of the Central Government, touch the bottom line” of the “one country, two systems” model that has operated in Hong Kong since the city transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Writing on Facebook in response to the vandalizing of the national emblem, former Hong Kong leader CY Leung said that “Hong Kongers will never tolerate these frantic rioters who forget their ancestors.”
While peaceful anti-government protests have been largely censored in China, Sunday’s violence was covered in state media, accompanied by outraged editorials.
“The radical protesters’ acts are open challenges to the central government’s authority,” state news agency Xinhua said. “It is a matter of serious nature and very bad influence. It is absolutely intolerable and must be strongly condemned. The criminals must be punished according to the law.”
The People’s Daily, in its condemnation of the protests, adopted an iconic phrase — “if this can be tolerated, what can not?” — previously used in editorials leading up to the Sino-Indian and Sino-Vietnamese wars of the 1960s and ’70s.
Many protesters were themselves calling for police to uphold the law Sunday and Monday, as the attacks in Yuen Long were accompanied by claims the police response was delayed, along with videos of officers and a local pro-government lawmaker appearing to greet the men in white who assaulted people inside the subway station.
In recent weeks, gangs of men have also been filmed tearing down Lennon Walls — collections of pro-democracy posters and post-it notes that have sprung up over the city — and clashing with and assaulting protesters who attempt to protect them.
Pro-government protests — another of which took place Saturday — have attracted tens of thousands of participants and been largely peaceful, though some participants have been recorded shouting abuse and threats at counter demonstrators and journalists.
The emergence of a more extremist pro-government group, one more than willing to use violence against protesters even as they return to their homes, adds another element of instability to an already confused and dangerous situation.
As Hong Kong looks ahead to another weekend of protests, no one appears to have much idea of where this is all heading, but few are confident that the destination is a good one. A city once renowned for stability and peacefulness now feels like it is teetering on the edge of chaos.
CNN’s Eric Cheung, Maisy Mok, Laura He and Chermaine Lee contributed reporting.