HONG KONG – An anti-government assailant stabbed and wounded a pro-Beijing Hong Kong lawmaker who was election campaigning Wednesday, police said, in another escalation of violence surrounding the protests demanding political reforms in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
Junius Ho has become a hated figure by the protesters over his alleged links to violence against them. After receiving initial medical treatment, Ho told reporters the knife had been blocked by his rib cage and that he was left with a minor 2-centimeter-deep (0.79-inch-deep) wound.
Police have arrested the assailant. Ho, two of his assistants and the attacker were all injured, hospital officials said.
At a news conference Wednesday in Beijing to wrap up her visit to mainland China, Hong Kong's embattled leader, Carrie Lam, condemned the attack on Ho and said she was concerned over rising public proclivity for violence.
"How can protesters carrying out violent acts claim to be pursuing freedom and democracy? Their every move challenges the freedom and violates the rights of the majority of the Hong Kong people," she said.
Lam, who earlier held talks with Vice Premier Han Zheng, said she was grateful for support from Chinese leadership during her trip and pledged to strictly enforce the law to restore order. She also met President Xi Jinping in Shanghai on Monday, seen as an endorsement of her government's handling of the crisis.
"The violent activities carried out by radical separatist forces have gone far beyond the bottom line of law and ethic," Han Zheng said. "The most important work for the Hong Kong society now is to stop violence and restore order."
China's foreign ministry recently dismissed a report that said Beijing planned to replace Lam next year. But the ruling Communist Party said in a statement Tuesday that it would "perfect" the system to appoint and dismiss Hong Kong's leader and top officials, in an indication of firmer grip on the territory. No details were given.
A video circulating on social media showed a man giving flowers to Ho and asking permission to snap a picture with him. Instead, the man drew a knife from his bag and stabbed Ho in the chest but was quickly overpowered by Ho and several others.
The man kept hurling abusive comments at Ho, calling him "human scum."
Ho has been targeted by anti-government protesters since July 21, when armed masked men in white T-shirts violently attacked demonstrators and passengers at a subway station in northern Yuen Long, injuring 45 people.
That attack marked a dark turn in the protests that began in early June, and demonstrators have accused police of being slow to respond or even colluding with the attackers. Police later said members of organized crime gangs were involved. Ho was seen shaking hands with some of the attackers that night.
Ho, whose constituency includes Yuen Long, denied colluding with gangs. He said that he bumped into the men after dinner and thanked them for "defending their homes," but that he didn't know about the violence until later.
Protesters have vandalized Ho's office several times and desecrated his parents' graves.
Ho was campaigning for Nov. 24 district elections to pick 452 councilors, a low-level poll held every four years but closely watched this year as a gauge of public sentiment at the time of prolonged protests that have hardened positions in both camps. The seats are currently dominated by the pro-establishment bloc.
The attack on Ho sparked concerns that the polls may be postponed. The city's biggest pro-establishment party voiced renewed concerns over safety, saying there were 150 incidents of their candidates being harassed and their offices vandalized in the last month, local media reported.
Many have seen a now-shelved China extradition bill that triggered the unrest as a sign of Beijing infringing on Hong Kong's judicial freedoms and other rights guaranteed when the former British colony was returned to China in 1997.
Apart from Ho, there have also been attacks on pro-democracy figures. On Sunday night, a knife-wielding man bit off part of the ear of district councilor Andrew Chiu and slashed two people. Jimmy Sham, a leader of one of the city's largest pro-democracy groups, was attacked by hammer-wielding assailants last month.
On Wednesday, hundreds of students at two universities rallied in support of a 22-year-old man who is fighting for his life in a hospital after reportedly falling off the upper floor of a carpark building when police fired tear gas in clashes early Monday.
Police investigations are ongoing to determine what exactly happened in the case, which has further incensed students at forefront of the protests.