In the latest sign of tensions between Taiwan and mainland China, a young pro-democracy activist and three legislators from Hong Kong received protection in Taiwan when their visit prompted demonstrations by pro-Beijing groups.
Two of the Hong Kong activists, Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, were reportedly roughed up on their return home when they encountered more protesters who want Hong Kong and Taiwan to stand with China rather than pursue independence.
Police in Taipei had kept angry protesters away from Wong, the 20-year-old secretary-general of Hong Kong's minor party Demosisto, and three party lawmakers, while they visited over the weekend for a pair of forums. Taiwan's 2-year-old New Power Party held the events to discuss advancing democracy.
The incidents raised questions in Taiwan about who organized the protests. A pro-China advocacy group in Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, said it protested the events peacefully. Local media pointed to possible involvement by a mafia-style gang with China connections. Others wonder if disgruntled Communist Party officials in China were behind the opposition to Wong's visit.
China claims sovereignty over Taiwan despite the island's self-rule since the 1940s. Officials in Beijing have grown nervous over the last year because Taiwan's new president, Tsai Ing-wen, and a majority in parliament advocate stronger autonomy rather than China's goal of eventual unification.
At least 70% of Taiwanese oppose unification with China, according to polls on the island. The Patriot Assn., the protesting pro-China group in Taipei, is "very extreme" compared with mainstream public opinion, said Lin Chong-pin, a retired strategic studies professor at Tamkang University in Taiwan.
In Hong Kong, Wong helped rally hundreds of thousands to protest in 2014 against Beijing's influence in the financial center's local government — a protest known as the Umbrella Movement. After Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, Beijing pledged to allow it a high degree of autonomy for 50 years, but pro-democracy groups believe Beijing has kept the territory on too short a tether.
Hong Kong's anti-Beijing faction has looked to Taiwan for inspiration and practical cues since the Umbrella Movement.
"We are hoping that whether in Hong Kong or Taiwan we can remain democratic, so to hold this kind of exchange is a natural thing," New Power Party media liaison Chen Nai-chia said, describing the weekend forums. "It's not that we were trying for some specific goal."
The Patriot Assn., a citizen group that advocates Taiwan's unification with China, organized the protest outside the forum where Wong was speaking, group executive Chang Hsiu-yeh said Monday.
The Taipei Times newspaper reported that Lin Fei-fan, a noted local antigovernment protest leader, said he has information that points to involvement by the Four Seas Gang, an international syndicate, or triad, made up largely of people with mainland China connections. But the Patriot Assn. said the gang was not involved.
"How could we even get in to hit people?" Chang said. "There was yellow tape on the right and yellow tape on the left. We were just shouting, and that's all. Who are the gangsters? It's the police."
Historical records show that Taiwan and Hong Kong belong to China, Chang said.
As Wong's delegation arrived Saturday, it ran into about 200 opponents at the Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, Chen said. Some were wearing masks. She said the protesters wanted the visitors out of Taiwan. For his protection, police escorted Wong to a vehicle that took him into Taipei, where the forums were scheduled, Chen said.
Some of the 300 protesters outside the forum venue engaged in shoving on Saturday afternoon, city police said in a statement. Officers ordered the protesters to leave and cleared the site in about an hour. About 20 activists gathered Sunday morning to protest again, the statement said. They were questioned and their case turned over to prosecutors.
Members of Taiwan's minor China Unification Promotion Party were also protesting, according to the police statement. Party head Chang An-le, often nicknamed White Wolf, is a former gangster.
Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je was quoted as saying Saturday that he wanted police to "protect our guests."
After Wong's group flew back to Hong Kong on Sunday night, it was assailed by another group of people supporting China, an aide to Law said. The incident left Law's clothes ripped, and Wong went to the hospital for a checkup, the aide said. He would not say who the party believes rallied the protests.
"To my surprise, they started pushing towards me even though there were a few airport security staff surrounding me," Law said in a statement Monday. "Their actions quickly escalated when they tried to pull me out of the crowd, where my shirt was torn apart and my glasses fell off as a result. Some of them even poured some unknown stinking liquid and threw plastic bottles at me.
"I was immediately escorted by the airport security to the taxi station, but unfortunately I was attacked again at the staircase," he said.
Wong is no stranger to clashes. He was convicted last year of unlawful assembly in Hong Kong and egged on his way to an earlier court hearing.
In October, he was detained on arrival in Thailand, where he was invited to speak at a university-sponsored event marking the anniversary of an attack by the Southeast Asian country's forces against student protesters.
Jennings is a special correspondent.
2:55 p.m.: This article was updated to include the name of a protest leader who said he has information about possible gang involvement in the protest outside the forum.