The home of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai was firebombed in the early hours of Thursday, as Hong Kong’s leader attempted to pacify protests that have rocked the territory by withdrawing a controversial extradition bill.
Mr Lai, the publisher of Apple Daily, who was unharmed in the attack, is a vocal supporter of the democracy movement that has brought protesters on to the streets for 13 consecutive weeks.
He has been labelled a traitor by state media in mainland China.
Even as the Hong Kong government tried to turn down the temperature in the territory’s political crisis, the attack demonstrated the strength of opposition in some quarters towards supporters of the movement.
The sharp divide in public opinion has also seen action taken against companies and individuals seen as opponents of the protests. On Thursday morning, the MTR Corporation, the company that operates the city’s transit network, said one of its employees was taken to hospital after being attacked by anti-government protesters.
A spokesman for Mr Lai, Mark Simon, accused organised crime gangs known as triads of being involved in the attack. Mr Simon, often referred to as Mr Lai’s right-hand man, adding that “no more fire bombs” should be thrown by anyone.
“That firebomb tossed at Jimmy’s house was as effective as the ones thrown at the cops during the protests, which means not at all,” Mr Simon said.
The attack on Mr Lai follows attempts by Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, to mollify protesters this week by withdrawing a controversial bill that would have allowed extradition of criminal suspects in Hong Kong to China for the first time.
Ms Lam also announced that international police complaints experts would advise an inquiry by the territory’s police watchdog into officer conduct. Protesters have accused the police of using excessive force and have called for an independent inquiry into their conduct.
On Thursday Ms Lam defended the decision to refer the inquiry to an internal police watchdog, pointing out that she had appointed new individuals to the body.
“It’s not fair to describe the [Independent Police Complaints Council] as being dominated by certain people with a certain political background,” she said. “It is a credible and independent statutory body and everyone being appointed by me at IPCC is taking very seriously their independent and statutory function.”
The extradition bill was the initial trigger for the protests that have subsequently expanded to include five demands, including the independent probe into police conduct and calls for universal suffrage.
The Hong Kong government has also taken out full-page advertisements in international, English-language media, including the Financial Times, promoting its arguments. The protesters have previously crowdfunded and published their own ads in global news outlets, notably targeting the G20 summit in Osaka in June.
The withdrawal of the bill appears unlikely to neuter the movement. A common refrain among protesters since Ms Lam’s announcement has been, “five key demands, not one less”.
The firebombing of Mr Lai’s house followed two separate attacks last week by thugs armed with a baseball bat and metal poles on pro-democracy organisers.
Additional reporting by Sue-Lin Wong