The incidence happened in Hong Kong on 21st Jul 2019

Video footage showed dozens of men, mostly in masks, storming a mass transit station in Yuen Long late on Sunday, chasing passengers and beating them with sticks. Among those hurt in the attack were demonstrators returning from a large anti-government rally, as well as a pregnant woman and a woman holding a child ...

Source: 'Where were the police?' Hong Kong outcry after masked thugs launch attack

Hong Kong political scientist Simon Shen said it was a terrorist attack (source).

Is it a terrorist attack and why?

  • 11
    Do we have good evidence about who hired them?
    – puppetsock
    Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 13:56
  • 8
    @puppetsock The evidence is very weak, but: a politician thanked the thugs after the attacks and said they should be forgiven (read: not charged). He could have been sympathetic but not hired them himself. Also, political capital is as valuable as money to a gang. Promising not to lean on them in the future would be quite useful, and I have seen HK police protect criminal elements after an altercation. scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3019621/…
    – piojo
    Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 9:59
  • 1
    I like the top answer and then combining it with the word "state": "state (sponsored) terrorism". Usually we think of terrorists as sowing disorder, these terrorists were ultimately trying to sow "order" for the state; yet both sow chaos and fear.
    – Andrew
    Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 16:43
  • 1
    Incidentally, I think we're using the term 'gangster' very loosely. That was surely more like 'rent-a-mob'.
    – Strawberry
    Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 11:18

5 Answers 5


There is no single definition of terrorism that everyone agrees to. However,

Involve violent acts or acts dangerous to human life that violate [... the] law; Appear to be intended

(i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population;

Is used in the USA. (Title 18, section 2331)

So was it violent? Yes.

Was it criminal? Yes, I don't see any claim that this was a police action, nor was it self-defence.

Was it intended to intimidate? Probably. They targeted a political group. It seems reasonable that the intention was to discourage others in the civillian population from joining this kind of group for fear of being attacked.

Was it terrorism by this definition? It seems likely to be terrorism.

  • 25
    It has also been widely speculated that it was plain-clothes Chinese military; a bunch of clean-shaven uniformly-dressed short-haired young men engaging in violence.
    – Yakk
    Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 15:04
  • 31
    Other definitions of terrorism also include "for political purposes", which this act would also satisfy. Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 15:20
  • 13
    I think the "for political purposes" of DJClayworth is key. Otherwise a protection racket would be terrorism. Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 20:49
  • 14
    "There is no single definition of terrorism that everyone agrees to." - That cannot be understated.
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 21:16
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    @PaulJohnson protection rackets would only meet the non-political definition of terrorism if you define "a civilian population" rather particularly.
    – phoog
    Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 13:04

As a general rule, when I use the word terrorism, I mean it to involve a small group using terror to attack the general population. Under that kind of definition, it includes the Irish Republican Army and Daesh but excludes the Nazis in Germany or Sherman's March to the Sea.

Here, we seem to have an official government (China's) using clandestine force to accomplish aims that it could not accomplish openly. I think that calling that terrorism is excusing it somewhat. I would prefer to simply call it government oppression by fear.

All that said, it is clearly a terror tactic, so this may be more a semantic argument than a functional one. I just think that there is reason to call terrorism sponsored by the government against its own citizens by a different term to differentiate it from terrorism sponsored by a small group against the general population.

For similar reasons, I dislike the claim that "one person's freedom fighter is another person's terrorist." To my mind, a freedom fighter focuses on government targets while a terrorist focuses on civilian targets. But note that that also cuts against using terrorism here, as there is no definition by which these people could be considered freedom fighters. They are anti-freedom fighters operating to support the current government rather than trying to take it down.

  • 8
    Has evidence emerged that the group was backed (financially or organisationally) by China? Reports I've seen stressed that this wasn't clear and it was all speculation.
    – JJJ
    Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 14:11
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    @JJJ At least a part of the white shirted thugs came from China and returned to China. This indicates either lack of border control or something ranging from tolerance to support of these people.
    – SBoss
    Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 14:41
  • 4
    What word(s) would you use for state terrorism then? Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 17:46
  • 5
    "a freedom fighter focuses on government targets while a terrorist focuses on civilian targets." I'm confused. Lee Rigby who was beheaded by the Muslim extremist was military personnel. If soldiers in peacemaking missions are attacked by insurgents we usually call them terrorists. Also, Timothy McVeigh's original plan was a campaign to assassinate government officials, I think he still would have been called a domestic terrorist, Edit: definitely not a freedom fighter (well for some maybe).
    – Zebrafish
    Commented Jul 23, 2019 at 19:42
  • 3
    @JJJ The other question I would ask is, "Has China rewarded thugs for useful violence in the past?" Because relationships and loyalty are big in Chinese culture, so even if China did not organize the attacks, it is culpable if it has created an expectation that the attackers will be rewarded. (This has happened before, during the Umbrella protests. Alas, I'm not sure whether the thugs were rewarded in that case.)
    – piojo
    Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 10:05

It's a bit too soon to be 100% sure on the details, but it looks closer to what we'd call mob / mafia violence.

The perpetrators wearing white shirts were working for the triads, similar to the Mafia in the USA, or the Yakuza in Japan.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triad_(organized_crime)

“I have strong reason to believe they were gangsters,” said Lam Cheuk-ting, a pro-democracy lawmaker who was hit on his arms, hands and face, leaving his mouth with a cut that required 18 stitches to close. “I don’t think any ordinary citizens have done such sophisticated, organized attacks on this kind of level.”

This was later confirmed:

Hong Kong police detained six men on Monday in connection with the attacks. Some came from rural parts of Yuen Long. They ranged in age from 24 to 54, and their occupations included drivers, hawkers and renovation workers, senior police official Chan Tin-chu said.

"Some of them have triad backgrounds," he told reporters, referring to organized crime syndicates that hold sway over certain neighborhoods in Hong Kong.

They are driven by money, not by politics alone:

“The Hong Kong triad only works for money, not for political ideology,” Lo said. “They will work for anyone.”

We know what their original political ideology was: the restoration of the Ming empire.

They have their roots in mainland China; the first triad was a patriotic secret society formed in the 17th century to overthrow the Qing dynasty, which had been founded by Manchu invaders, and to restore the Han Chinese Ming dynasty. By the beginning of the 19th century, the group had disintegrated into gangs operating independently all over China. Their membership in Hong Kong surged as refugees fled civil war and political upheaval on the mainland.

It's unclear if they were paid by the government or not, but it is possible.

“Despite their current image, [the triads] are not actually ‘patriotic,’ just opportunistic,” says Vickers, who ran the Criminal Intelligence Bureau in the colonial administration. He likened the triads presumed role in furthering China’s national interests to the “alleged but unproven CIA and mafia cooperation in the 1960’s.”

It's also possible that the corporate leaders in Hong Kong's business district now see the police as ineffective, and might see the triads as an effective option:

In this case, the attackers could possibly have been hired by business interests who, like the government, want the protests to end, Ong said.

The Yuen Long region, where the attacks took place, has a long history of triad activity particularly with 14 K and Wo Shing Wo subgroups, Vickers said.

In the last couple of weeks, there has been considerable tension between protesters and local businessmen who are very opposed to the demonstrators and their activities, Vickers said.

"So the question of who really 'pulled the trigger' remains open," he said

So in conclusion, I think it falls under mob violence / organized crime.

It does share many similarities with terrorism, but I think we are too quick (maybe rightly) to assume terrorism nowadays because of how much terrorism has happened in the past few years.

  • 1
    I appreciate you pulling all that info together. But your last explanation doesn't explain why the shops in NT were closed during times of expected violence. Could it be that shops hired thugs but couldn't control them, or that some shops hired thugs but other shops thought they wouldn't be on the leash?
    – piojo
    Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 4:36

Pretty all definitions of terrorism I'm familiar with define terrorism as the action of the group taken against the government or the population on their own, or financed by foreign agents.

Any actions initiated by the government, against own population, can be speculated to be legal measures to bring peace and prosperity, or oppressive actions, but no way a terrorism.

If those actions were inspired by alien agent (USA for example), they could be described as terrorism. But it's more likely they are initiated by Chinese government, which makes them plain repression.

  • 5
    FYI, the HK populace does not answer to Chinese laws. It has its own complete government. This would be more like the USA inciting violence in Puerto Rico.
    – piojo
    Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 10:14
  • 1
    @piojo Sounds like an analogy to other current events, with ideas foundational to the USA (e.g. political leaders needing to respect the governed) inciting much of what's happening on that island.
    – WBT
    Commented Jul 24, 2019 at 16:20
  • 1
    @WBT Does the USA actually govern Puerto Rico? Because China does not govern Hong Kong. As far as I know, China has no formal say in anything the government does. It is all by influence, though that influence goes a long way.
    – piojo
    Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 4:33
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    @piojo The answer to that depends on who you ask and how they define "govern," but the US federal (central national) government does claim jurisdiction to apply federal law there.
    – WBT
    Commented Jul 25, 2019 at 13:40
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    @WBT Thanks, that is the difference. China has no jurisdiction in HK. That's actually what started these protests. HK considered passing a law to extradite to Chinese courts, which would have made HK stand on basically the same footing as Puerto Rico.
    – piojo
    Commented Jul 26, 2019 at 2:34

Whilst I feel people have addressed the definition of terrorist quite well, it might pay to approach it from the other angle: what constitutes a gangster?

Cambridge Online Dictionary suggests:

a member of an organized group of violent criminals


However, a gangster is, more simply put, a member of a gang. Comparing a gang to a terrorist organisation, we can notice subtle differences. A gang is primarily focused on maintaining control of a given territory or area, usually competing with other gangs, and tries to keep a relatively low profile. For example, a gangster would be more likely to perform a 'hit' (assassination) rather than using bombs or explosives like a terrorist would.

Terrorists also typically have political or ideology based motivations they want the public to adopt, with little tolerance for differing views, where-as gangs will work with pretty much anybody assuming the price is right, and don't have any particular moral or political restrictions (other than whatever internal 'code of honour' they might choose to adopt).

I think the way to distinguish the two, is the intended outcome and the means used.

In this case, the thugs that attacked the Hong Kong protestors were evidently working for pay (given they haven't outwardly claimed any given ideology as a motivating factor), are likely sanctioned by the Hong Kong government, and also defend the Hong Kong government (IE they maintain the status quo, as opposed to disrupting it).

It's also worth noting that violent beatings also falls largely within the M.O. of a gang, and unlike a terrorist organisation, does not make use of explosives, spontaneous executions, or even more unusually, knives.

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