BEIJING/HONG KONG – China insisted Tuesday it held the sole authority to rule on constitutional matters in Hong Kong, as it condemned a decision by the city’s high court to overturn a ban on face masks worn by pro-democracy protesters.
The statement could further fan the flames in Hong Kong after months of violent protests over concerns that Beijing is chipping away at the autonomy of the financial hub.
The ban on face-covering came into force in October, when the city’s unelected pro-Beijing leader invoked colonial-era legislation for the first time in more than 50 years.
The move was seen as a watershed legal moment for the city since its 1997 return by Britain to China — but has been largely symbolic.
The city’s high court ruled on Monday that the government ban on face masks was unconstitutional. But Beijing said the judicial branch of the special administrative region had overreached.
Jian Tiewei, spokesman of the legislative affairs commission of the National People’s Congress standing committee said only the NPC had the right to rule on whether a law is in accordance with the Basic Law — the city’s mini-constitution.
“No other institution has the right to make judgments or decisions,” Jian said, according to a state media report posted on the NPC’s website.
Jian said the ruling had “severely weakened the governance” of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam and the city government.
The news came amid a two-day university siege that has transfixed Hong Kong, raising fears of a crackdown on scores of protesters who remain trapped in a campus surrounded by police.
About 100 people were still barricaded inside the university on Tuesday morning after hundreds either escaped overnight or were evacuated following negotiations involving political figures, the South China Morning Post reported. Some managed to escape from the university in Kowloon by climbing over walls, while police arrested dozens of others on Monday — sometimes tackling them to the ground or pounding them with batons.
Running battles between police and protesters on Monday featured raging fires, tear gas and flaming vehicles. By the evening tens of thousands of demonstrators marched toward the Hong Kong Polytechnic University to aid those stuck in the campus, leading to more clashes throughout the night.
The government on Monday warned those inside to surrender peacefully and urged others to stay away from the site as protesters pleaded for reinforcements to battle police. Medical personnel were allowed in to tend to the wounded, while university officials called for a negotiation and parents held signs saying “Save the Kids.”
“Police have repeatedly made appeals and people in PolyU campus should listen,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam said in a Facebook post. She’s expected to hold a regular weekly press briefing Tuesday morning.
The chaos again made Hong Kong look in television images more like a war zone than a financial hub. Although stocks finished the day higher after losing 5.6 percent last week, signs of disarray were evident: The government ordered schools to remain shut for a sixth day, a major tunnel linking Kowloon with Hong Kong Island remained closed and officials warned that they may need to scrap District Council elections scheduled for Sunday.
“If the police want to go in and smash the movement, this is their opportunity,” said David Zweig, director of Center on China’s Transnational Relations and professor emeritus at The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “On the other hand, it could also be an opportunity to tone things down and start a dialog with university officials that could lead to a broader discussion.”
“It can’t go on in this form forever,” Zweig said. “The world now sees Hong Kong as a mess.”
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said Washington is “gravely concerned” about rising violence in Hong Kong and called on Lam to allow an independent probe of protest incidents — one of the key demands of protesters. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged President Donald Trump to speak out on behalf of the demonstrators.
“The world should hear from him directly that the United States stands with these brave women and men,” McConnell said Monday afternoon on the Senate floor, where lawmakers are considering a bill supporting the demonstrators that would impose penalties on Beijing for infringing on the city’s autonomy.
Police surrounded the university over the weekend after students fortified the campus with makeshift barricades and scattered debris in front of the nearby cross-harbor tunnel that connects the peninsula with Hong Kong Island.
Protesters fired arrows from behind the barricades, injuring one officer, and threw scores of petrol bombs at officers who tried to sweep in. They also set police vehicles ablaze as officers warned protesters that they would use live rounds. Police kept up pressure, surrounding the campus, blocking exits and making dozens of arrests.
“We have to take the risk,” said one 26-year-old protester surnamed Lee, who took part in battle. “We have no alternative.”
Some of the most prominent members of the protest movement warned that the siege could end with widespread bloodshed.
“Is the world going to witness bloody crackdown w/o stopping ruthless regime?” said Joshua Wong, who led the 2014 Occupy protests and has been one of the most visible demonstrators in what is now a leaderless movement.
Over the weekend, Chinese troops exited their barracks in the former colony to help clear roadblocks, raising fears among the opposition that Beijing might directly intervene. The Communist Party’s flagship People’s Daily newspaper said there was no room for compromise, and the editor-in-chief of the Global Times newspaper called for police to use live rounds if attacked.
Officials in Lam’s administration pleaded on Monday with protesters to leave, saying the bill that sparked the protests allowing extraditions to China had been completely withdrawn. Demonstrators are still demanding an independent inquiry into police abuses and the right to nominate and elect their own leaders, even if they stand up to Beijing.
“Realistically, we must put an end to violence,” said Matthew Cheung, Lam’s deputy. “Unless you’ve got a peaceful environment, law and order restored to law-abiding Hong Kong, you won’t have the environment, the ambiance to conduct dialogue.”
The chaotic beginning to the workweek on Monday followed a previous week of unprecedented violence, with five straight days of chaos beginning with the shooting of a protester last Monday.
The worsening violence prompted many major universities to cancel the entire semester and led to classes being canceled at Hong Kong’s pricey private schools. Countless major events — including a major music festival and a Goldman Sachs anniversary event — have been cancelled or postponed.
“Some Hong Kong people have really lost patience with the radical protesters,” said Emily Lau, a veteran politician and former chairperson of the opposition Democratic Party, on Bloomberg Television. “But there are others who are very sympathetic, who will take to the streets in black to continue to support them. So it is a city that is split asunder.”
Even with growing disenchantment about the increased violence, many white-collar professionals have flooded into the city’s financial district to voice support for the students.
“We don’t really care about politics,” said one 40-year-old woman surnamed Cheung, who wore a blazer and an Apple watch, at a lunch time protest on Friday as crowds chanted “Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!” “But right now, they just want to show the world, the Hong Kong government, that we do care — that we do want to fight for it, even though we’re not in the front lines, holding the umbrellas, fighting through tear gas.”
As the violence worsens between protesters and police, the government has insisted it won’t yield to any further political demands. At the same time, there’s a growing sense that protester tactics are beginning to lead to fiercer confrontations, particularly as they dig in to hold territory like the PolyU campus.
“This is a political problem requiring a political solution,” said Steve Vickers, a former head of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau who is now chief executive officer of Steve Vickers and Associates, a political and corporate risk consultancy.
“But in the end,” he added, “when the violence gets to a point where people are throwing hundreds of petrol bombs, and bows and arrows are wounding people, there comes a point when you can’t let that go on.”