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HONG KONG – In the Hong Kong protests, not all is as it seems.
From the shadows of the city's mass street protests, murky characters have emerged. Allegations have spread among protesters, the local media and online that triad gangsters, paid demonstrators, police pretending to be protest leaders, and even a stuntman feigning suicidal tendencies have arrayed themselves against the students and the Occupy Central movement.
Part of this is to do with rumors flying around in a continually changing situation, with no time for people to verify what they read or hear. But with the Chinese Communist Party in the background after taking control from Britain in 1997, Hong Kong citizens are ever ready to believe such claims of duplicity.
"There are rich grounds for suspicion from both the pro-democracy groups, or you might say the pro-American or pro-British groups, and the pro-government, or you might say the pro-Beijing groups, that they are not being honest about really who is encouraging them or giving them money or directing them," said Michael DeGolyer, a political economist at Hong Kong Baptist University. "This is not a society that is characterized by a huge degree of trust."
DeGolyer said there is a "wedge of distrust" within Hong Kong society because there is a coyness about who belongs to the Communist Party — which does not officially exist as a party within the political system here — while another section of society suspects there are foreign interests giving directions within the former colony.
That atmosphere of distrust has come to the fore during days of protests by students and Occupy Central, an alliance of pro-democracy activists, who are calling for genuine democratic reforms in the semiautonomous region. When police fired tear gas and pepper spray on protesters on Sept. 28, it caused an upsurge in support and brought tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents onto the streets.
On Sunday afternoon, a man who wanted the protests to end climbed up to the top of a pedestrian walkway over a key road that had been at their epicenter and looked as if he might jump if student leaders didn't meet with him. He used a megaphone to berate the protesters for stopping him from getting to work and his three children from going to school, and later brandished a box cutter.
While he was still up there, rumors circled on social media and the pro-democracy Apple Daily reported that he was in fact a stuntman who had been hired to disrupt the protests. What purported to be his photo in the stuntman's register was circulated.
But the Hong Kong Stuntman's Association denied on Tuesday that the stuntman, identified as Leung Siu Hung, was the man in question.
"It doesn't look anything like him. He's much fitter," spokeswoman Rita Yeung said by phone.
Police and fire crews had rushed to lay out two large inflatable cushions beneath him and some protesters tried to debate with him. No leaders met with him and he eventually stepped down nearly five hours later.
Later Sunday, amid divisions among protesters after Occupy Central had announced it was withdrawing from some areas, local television broadcasts showed Joe Yeung, identified as a protester, shaking hands with a police official and saying protesters would remove barriers from outside the office of the chief executive, Hong Kong's leader. Later on, internet users found that Yeung was an auxiliary police officer and accused him of being part of a ruse.
Yeung told The Associated Press by phone that he was both a part-time police officer and an Occupy Central supporter, and since Sunday's incident he had handed in his resignation. He said he had made up his mind to resign from the police when he saw officers using pepper spray on the students the week before.
Kevin Tam, a psychologist at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said people's trust in the traditional media had faded during the protests because "fact-checkers" on social media had alleged inaccuracies in their reports, and there was more information available on social media than in the traditional media, including videos.
This "reinforces some preexisting concerns ... of the tight control of the government on information and that of course violates the core values of Hong Kong. We are used to having transparency, information can flow very freely," Tam said. "The concern has been there for a while because of course people understand what happens in mainland China."
On the mainland, authorities can largely control the narrative on any outbreaks of unrest.
After clashes broke out Friday when Hong Kong residents and pro-Beijing supporters tried to force pro-democracy activists from the streets they were occupying in the Mong Kok area, Hong Kong police and its security chief were forced to deny that they had any connection with triad criminal gangs suspected of inciting the attacks on peaceful demonstrators. Online accounts and videos accused the police of standing by while protesters were beaten.
"They can't drive us away with tear gas so they are trying to do it with gangsters," said Johnny Hui, 31, a protester in the Admiralty district. His views summed up a widespread belief among protesters that the Hong Kong government and police were colluding with triads.
Photos circulated on social media of a call to "Blue Ribbon action" — in reference to the blue ribbons some pro-government supporters wear — and a price list for causing a disturbance. The maximum payment was 1,000 Hong Kong dollars ($103), for causing chaos and disorder. The claims could not be independently confirmed, and calls to a telephone number said to be where one could claim a reward did not connect.
On Saturday, the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily declared in a headline that "the police and triads join hands to clear the protests."
At least eight of 19 people arrested were believed to have links to triads, police said.
Tam, the psychologist, said unverified information had spread virally partly as a way for the public to express its anxiety amid a lot of uncertainty and powerlessness.
People were also clinging to information that reinforced their existing beliefs and finding it hard to be objective and entertain other viewpoints, Tam said. "I think that is why there is a trend now on Facebook of defriending" people with other views, he said. "That has not happened before."
Associated Press writer Sylvia Hui and video journalist Kelvin Chan contributed to this report.