Risk of Triad-Related Violence Grows in Hong Kong

With Hong Kong’s democracy protest movement wearing on into its third week, there are growing concerns over violence fomented with the help of so-called “patriotic triads,” according to a threat assessment released on Oct. 14 by SVA, a Hong Kong-based risk consultancy.

Indeed, triad elements appear to be behind a major part of the growing aggressiveness, and “since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to Beijing from the UK, some high-profile triad members have even acquired mainland recognition and titles.” That ties in with the growing danger that the triads will assume greater influence in the city.

It is not known who has hired them, but suspicion has fallen on mainland elements somehow tied to the Beijing government who are opposed to the protesters’ demands for universal suffrage in the 2017 election. The protesters were attacked on Oct. 14 at both ends of their Queensway barricades by various Anti-Occupy Central groups and triad elements, according to the SVA assessment. SVA is headed by Steve Vickers, a longtime Hong Kong Police intelligence official who has since formed SVA as arguable the city’s foremost corporate intelligence, security and consulting company.

Despite persistent reports that armored cars and other People’s Liberation Army vehicles have been staging late-night movements around the city, there is no evidence at this point that Beijing intends to bring in outside forces to crack down on the protests. Since 1997, mainland authorities have stayed out and let local authorities handle matters in the knowledge that tanks on the streets would do irreparable damage to business and to Hong Kong’s autonomy and reputation as one of the world’s most important financial centers.

The impasse has left the government, headed by CY Leung, in a quandary, caught between Beijing’s intractable diktat that they will name the candidates in the 2017 election, and the determination of the pro-democracy forces to use public pressure to change their minds. Leung’s reputation has been one of the biggest casualties of the situation.

Except for tear gas sprayed on demonstrators on Aug. 31, which earned them enormous criticism and radicalized even middle-class residents who turned out the next day in the hundreds of thousands, the police have largely acted professionally with some exceptions, with students complaining that they stood by while protesters were beaten.

The key takeaway is that the longer the Occupy Central movement continues to disrupt daily life, “the more likely that civilian on civilian clashes will occur and with that, the probability that decisive force will be required by the Police to end the occupation,” according to the report. The corollary to that is the question of how long it will be before the territory’s business community will begin to suffer real damage, not just to its reputation but to commerce.

“Even when a way is found to disengage and to draw the Occupy Central exercise to a close, there will be many lingering after-effects,” SVA said. “Along these lines we note that groups such as the Heung Yee Kuk, who pledged to “defend” their own areas and to support the government; ‘support’ will come at a political price. We also note the increasing reports of triad involvement, both in support of Anti-Occupy groups and as suspected agitators in Kowloon West.”

Masked triad members were reported to be present within the group of attackers on Monday, which also included truck and taxi drivers, along with hundreds of pro-mainland supporters, known as the “blue ribbons” for the ribbons they have pinned to their clothing, the SVA report noted. “The Hong Kong police deployed resources swiftly to both locations and were able to hold the line.

The use of triads is a classic tactic to attempt to stifle dissent, not only in Hong Kong but in Taiwan, where they did the same thing during spring protests. When the triads showed, although there was no violence, the protest ended. There is also the example of Kevin Lau, the former editor of the respected Ming Pao Chinese language daily, who was attacked by triad members after his newspaper had participated in a study with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists on hidden investments by top Chinese cadres in the British Virgin Islands.

There is concern that while the united front organizations opposing the pro-democracy forces may help the Hong Kong and mainland governments meet their short-term goals of intimidating the protesters, “the blatant triad involvement will cause longer term difficulties in policing Hong Kong, post Occupy Central,” SVA said.

“This situation is exacerbated by perceived inaction by the government against senior level triad office-bearers. The biggest risk is that Occupy Central and Anti-Occupy Central supporters and agitators will further clash over the coming days, the report notes. As the Anti-Occupy groups become more emboldened and stronger and better organized, “there is a growing risk of clashes between the two groups turning truly violent and becoming difficult for the Police to control without the use of force.”

The Occupy supporters may also continue to reinforce their street positions and barriers, increasing the probability that, failing an early and highly unlikely political solution, that the situation will require concentrated and forceful police action to reopen the city and finally disperse the protesters.

“We believe that the police will gain the upper hand and will deflate the situation; however, at the political level there is still much room for the Hong Kong government to mishandle the final stages of Occupy Central; this especially given the growing complexities faced by Police as the Anti-Occupy Central movements become more involved.