Yuen Long, Hong Kong (CNN)Thousands of protesters are expected on Saturday to descend on the small town near Hong Kong’s border with China that was hit by some of the worst violence seen during the past eight weeks of tumultuous protests.
On July 21, after a demonstration in downtown Hong Kong against a now-shelved extradition bill was broken up by police, protesters returning to Yuen Long were attacked by a mob wielding iron bars and bamboo sticks. Footage of the attack posted on social media showed the marauding masked gang, wearing white T-shirts, attacking crowds on the platform and inside train carriages at Yuen Long MTR station, in the far northwest of the semi-autonomous Chinese city.About a dozen men have been arrested in connection with that violence, some of whom have links to organized crime groups, or triads. Protesters were reportedly at the mercy of the mob for almost an hour before police arrived and at least 45 people were injured, some seriously.A protest condemning the violence and delayed police response is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m. Saturday, next to the Yuen Long MTR, under the slogan: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Read MoreHong Kong lawmaker says opponents walking 'path of not being alive'The planned protest follows a large peaceful demonstration at the city’s international airport, Friday night. Thousands of protesters joined aviation staff in occupying the arrivals hall, where they greeted passengers with chants of “Free Hong Kong” and “Justice for victims of brutality.”Police declined to grant protesters a letter of no objection for Saturday’s Yuen Long demonstration, meaning it will be classified as an unauthorized assembly once attendance tops 50 people. Tsang Ching-fo, the acting police commander for the region, said authorities chose not to allow the protest because of safety concerns. “We believe the amount of space at that location is unsuitable for a large number people to gather. It is likely that the crowd will unavoidably have to enter nearby villages and shopping malls,” Tsang said at a news conference Thursday. “We believe that it will be very difficult for us to separate the two sides, and it is likely that scenes of conflict will occur.” Border townLocated less than 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Hong Kong’s border with China, Yuen Long is closer to mainland China than it is to Hong Kong’s iconic Victoria Harbor.The area is known for smuggling, both of goods and people, while decades of police operations to combat triads, which operate on both sides of the border, have failed to stamp out organized crime in the area. Central Yuen Long on July 25, 2019. The town, in the north of Hong Kong near the Chinese border, will see a major protest on July 27. The role of alleged triad members in the attacks on protesters came as little surprise to researchers, who pointed to the common practice of using “thugs for hire” in mainland China. Local officials have even faced allegations of working with the criminal gangs. “We call this extra-legal governance — sometimes when governments cannot use the formal law enforcement for whatever reason, they pay for it,” said T Wing Lo, an expert in triad societies at City University of Hong Kong. “This is the normal way to do business.”Police Commissioner Stephen Lo on Monday denied accusations that law enforcement officials were working with gangs. “We will investigate whether we were inefficient but we are not related to triads. I ask you to trust the police force,” he said. Triads are also known to have links to the Chinese government. In the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, some gangs were involved in smuggling democracy leaders out of China, but following this in the years up to the 1997 Hong Kong handover, Beijing embarked on a “deliberate strategy to woo the Triads into the pro-Beijing camp,” which included granting business opportunities to leaders in exchange for support in Hong Kong. Horrified by the violence In the wake of Sunday’s attack, residents of Yuen Long, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said this week that they had been horrified by the violence.”I never thought this would happen (here),” said one shop employee. “The Yuen Long of my memory is a place full of warmth. Everyone is very friendly, people will always help each other.” Yet while many locals condemned the violence, they also objected to Saturday’s protest out of concern for local business and disruption to the suburb. In the days after Sunday’s attack, many shops in Yuen Long closed. “Villages are very traditional,” said a butcher. “They don’t tolerate people who mess up their community. You have to be considerate on this matter.” On Thursday, first-aid volunteers Johnny Ip and Joshua Chung said they were visiting Yuen Long earlier to scout the area ahead of Saturday’s protest. Ip said he had heightened safety concerns for this protest because of the gangs known to operate in Yuen Long. Johnny Ip, a Yuen Long resident, said he would take part in protests on July 27, 2019, despite recent attacks on pro-democracy activists in the area. No end in sightSaturday’s march marks the eighth consecutive weekend of major protests in Hong Kong, during which hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets.Initially, protesters were demanding the withdrawal of a now-shelved extradition bill, but the demonstrations have evolved to include calls for greater democracy, an independent investigation into alleged police brutality, and the resignation of the city’s leader, Carrie Lam. As the summer of unrest has heated up, violence from protesters and police has become a more common sight, with tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray used on July 21 after protesters threw bricks and pushed into police lines. Last week, police raided a warehouse in an industrial area of the city, seizing a large cache of high-powered explosives, petrol bombs and other weapons. Three men, in their twenties with alleged links to a pro-independence group, were arrested in connection with the seizure.A pro-democracy “Lennon Wall” set up in Yuen Long after armed gangs attacked protesters on July 21, 2019.The possibility of Chinese military involvement has also been raised. During a press briefing earlier this week, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) — which has a large but discreet presence in Hong Kong — was monitoring the situation closely. Wu reminded journalists of the Hong Kong law that allows the local government to request assistance in maintaining public order from the PLA garrison in the city, but did not suggest troops would be deployed.His comments were greeted with alarm by some in Hong Kong and Washington, with US lawmakers James McGovern and Marco Rubio issuing a joint statement that “escalation of violence — whether on the part of organized crime thugs or the PLA — will only further undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and rule of law.”