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Beijing–Hong Kong Tensions Rise After Stabbing

A senior Chinese official took to the airwaves in Hong Kong on Thursday to condemn the brutal stabbing attack on Kevin Lau, the former editor of Ming Pao, a local newspaper, who had been abruptly dismissed from his job in January. “We’re closely watching the attack … and strongly condemn the unlawful act of the criminals,” said Yang Jian, deputy director of China’s Liaison Office in the city. “We firmly support the Hong Kong government to spare no effort, arrest the culprits, and punish them in line with the law.”

The statement will do little to lessen the damage to Beijing’s reputation in Hong Kong, which has been a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic since 1997. Many in the city suspect that Mainland Chinese individuals or pro-Beijing thugs staged the near-fatal attack on Lau, who sponsored, among other things, exposés on the “hidden” wealth of Chinese leaders.

Last Wednesday, one man, with the help of a getaway driver, slashed Lau in the back, one lung, and both legs with a meat cleaver and left him for dead. Lau was admitted to hospital in critical condition, but now it appears he will survive.

Lau was not the only liberal journalist to be targeted in recent years. In 2008, police thwarted an attempt to kill Jimmy Lai, who often antagonized Beijing with the hard-hitting reporting of his publications, and there has been a string of attacks on others. Rarely are assailants apprehended.

“Who let the thugs out in Hong Kong politics?” asked Stephen Vines, a local journalist, last August. In the last several years thuggish elements have run loose in Hong Kong, often while police passively watch them attack pro-democracy protesters. Many times, the Hong Kong government has failed to take effective action against these violent individuals.

There is a perception, therefore, that senior officials are reluctant to take action against those believed to be doing Beijing’s bidding. These concerns were highlighted when Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s top political official, spent more time criticizing a primary school teacher for cussing at a rally last July than dealing with her underlying grievance about the police’s lenient treatment of thugs harassing protesters.

As concerns about China’s meddling in Hong Kong grow, more people are taking to the streets to express discontent, sometimes over seemingly minor issues such as the failure last October to issue a free-to-air broadcast license to a start-up station. At the moment, the Hong Kong government is dreading what could end up as large-scale protests, organized by the Occupy Central, scheduled for this July. The group promises to shut down the heart of the city’s business district with “love and peace”—along with civil disobedience—if Beijing reneges on its pledge to allow universal suffrage in the 2017 elections for chief executive.

The prospect of mass action is creating angst in many quarters, especially the business community. The challenge for the Hong Kong government will be to keep gangsters from turning a peaceful protest—even one that is illegal—into a riot, with bloodshed. It’s not clear that the city’s pro-Beijing political leadership has the skill—or even the will—to do that. 

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