Several thousand protesters defied a police ban on Saturday to converge on a rural Hong Kong town where suspected triad gang members attacked protesters and commuters at a train station last weekend.
Police, widely criticised for failing to better protect the public from the attack by club-wielding men in Yuen Long, refused to allow the march in the town on safety grounds.
But activists pushed ahead and by 4.45 p.m. (0845 GMT) several thousand had gathered in sweltering heat, many chanting slogans against the police.
Residents described a growing police presence in the area earlier on Saturday, with force chiefs insisting they would seek to keep order. Extra fortifications have been placed around the Yuen Long district police station.
Police inside the station and on the roof filmed the protesters as the march began.
“They failed the public,” a protester called Kevin, in a red T-shirt, said of the police as he stood outside the police station, gripping its gates.
“They deliberately let the triads beat up protesters to get revenge on us … We’re here to teach them a lesson,” he said, as he shouted an obscenity at the police.
Last Sunday, about 100 white-shirted men stormed the Yuen Long mass-transit station hours after protesters marched through central Hong Kong and defaced China’s Liaison Office – the main symbol of Beijing’s authority over the former British colony.
The men attacked black-clad protesters returning from Hong Kong island, passers-by, journalists and lawmakers with pipes and clubs, leaving 45 people injured.
Reuters reported on Friday that a Liaison Office official had days earlier urged village chiefs to drive away any activists from the town.
The Yuen Long attack and the vandalism at the Liaison Office marked new fronts in a protest movement that has intensified over the last two months.
The protests, considered the most direct challenge to the authority of China’s President Xi Jinping, mushroomed on Friday as thousands of activists thronged the arrivals halls of Hong Kong international airport.
The protesters, initially demanding the scrapping of a bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland courts for trial, are now also seeking independent inquiries into police use of force, the resignation of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and full democratic reform – anathema to Beijing’s Communist Party leadership.
The crisis is exposing fissures in Lam’s administration, with police chiefs and rank-and-file officers enraged at an apology over last weekend’s attacks by her chief secretary on Friday, apparently made without consultation.
The official, Matthew Cheung, said the government would not shirk its responsibility “and the police’s handling fell short of residents’ expectations”.
Britain handed Hong Kong to China in 1997 amid guarantees that its core freedoms and autonomy, including the right to protest and an independent judiciary, would be protected under a “one country, two systems” formula.
Many fear those rights are under threat as Beijing’s reach extends into the city.
Activists told Reuters they feared the protest could turn violent this weekend, given anger among the protesters over last Sunday’s violence and a determination among some to challenge villagers they believe are close to triad groups in the area.
“We are hoping for a peaceful night,” said Neil, masked, in his mid-20s, standing next to a friend who was strapping on a hard hat.
“We want Yuen Long to be safe and peaceful. But there still might be trouble so we have to be prepared.”
Several banks in the area did not open on Saturday and many businesses were shuttered.