The growing use of force by anti-government protesters in Hong Kong took a new turn over the past weekend, with vigilantism being advocated as a way to tackle clashes with rival groups.
The calls for "resolving things privately" " or si liu in Cantonese " threaten to deepen the worst political crisis to hit the former British colony since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Supporters advocate physical retaliation against aggressive groups rather than retreating or asking police " whom many view as their enemy " to mediate and enforce the law.
Such calls intensified on Saturday after a group of men wearing blue T-shirts with the slogan "I love police" and holding Chinese national flags beat civilians with wooden sticks.
The attack took place near a "Lennon Wall" of sticky-note messages in support of the protest movement in the eastern Hong Kong neighborhood of Fortress Hill.
On Wednesday, the Hong Kong Jockey Club canceled evening horse races, citing fears of "possible violence" at the racecourse amid online calls to protest against a pro-Beijing lawmaker whose horse was part of the race.
The call for fistfights comes on top of an array of tactics that anti-government protesters have been deploying over the past months, each appearing more violent than before.
The anti-government protests, which are now in their 15th straight week, were triggered in June by an unpopular government plan that many feared could erode the political firewall between the semi-autonomous city and mainland China.
The demonstrators have vowed to continue calling for greater accountability and democracy after the local authorities gave in to their demand of withdrawing the contentious plan, which would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.
In the weeks since reported millions of people marched peacefully in opposition to the extradition bill, protesters have escalated their actions such that over the past few weeks, bricks and petrol bombs have become standard weapons seen on the front line of clashes.
Now, apart from such actions, the latest move is for protesters to take on physical combat, including using umbrellas or poles.
They claimed this would only be in response to provocations and attacks by others, who had also used poles and sticks on them.
Over four days, from last Saturday to Tuesday morning, more than 140 discussion threads about fighting back were posted on LIHKG, an online forum frequented by protesters.
Some threads, including the one that called for people not to aim at heads during such fights, had more than 1,000 comments.
But for a month before Saturday, there were only about 50 discussion threads on the same subject.
On Sunday, black-clad protesters and others in casual wear were seen fighting government supporters in various parts of town.
At least five cases were documented, including one of a man who was beaten by more than a dozen protesters after he allegedly hit someone in Fortress Hill.
Another man was beaten by a group in the Wan Chai district and was sent to the hospital, the police said on Monday.
In all instances, protesters insisted they were retaliating for attacks but these claims could not be independently verified.
On their forum, even as users supported retaliating against violent counterprotesters, there were others who counseled restraint.
They cautioned that such physical acts could undermine support for the movement.
"If someone actually dies, the thugs will have reasons to use increased force against us," one user wrote, adding that peaceful protesters may also distance themselves from the movement.
Baptist University political scientist Edmund Cheng Wai said it was too early to judge if vigilantism had taken root among protesters, but conceded the situation was worrying.
"It is a sign of a collapse of trust in public institutions," Cheng said, adding that some may feel police had not been impartial in their handling of protesters and pro-Beijing groups.
Cheng said it was possible that protesters would reflect and change their tactics, as they did after two mainland Chinese men were held up and assaulted at Hong Kong International Airport in August.
After the incidents, protesters decided to take a softer approach and defuse tensions.
Protesters interviewed by the South China Morning Post cited the police's inaction against violence by their opponents as the reason they were taking matters into their own hands.
The force has come under fire for showing up late to stop indiscriminate attacks on protesters, journalists and passers-by at the Yuen Long train station in July.
A male protester in his 30s, who declined to be named, said he was not involved in the fights on Sunday but would retaliate if attacked.
"Protecting yourself has become your own civic duty, there is no going back for Hong Kong," he said, adding that retaliation might deter counterprotesters from launching further attacks.
Protesters have organized more actions in the lead-up to October 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, as Beijing gears up for a celebration.
Additional reporting by Kimmy Chung, Jeffie Lam and Gigi Choy.
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