BEIJING – After a week of turbulence in Hong Kong, Beijing appears to have settled on its message to the city: Continued protests risk throwing away everything that makes it special.
A front-page editorial in the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, the People’s Daily, blasted the protesters who stormed the city’s Legislative Council on Monday as “extremists” whose actions threaten to hinder economic and social development and “ruin Hong Kong’s reputation as an international business metropolis.”
The comments play into a widespread anxiety among Hong Kong residents: that the former British colony risks irrelevance as it is swallowed up by an increasingly wealthy and powerful China. Beijing is using this week’s unrest to put its own spin on events, sending protesters the message that their actions are more likely to speed up than slow down that trend.
State media has presented Hong Kong as a city on the brink. “As the global economic landscape undergoes profound adjustments and international competition becomes increasingly fierce, Hong Kong faces great challenges and cannot afford flux or internal attrition,” the People’s Daily said.
Historic protests erupted in recent months over Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s decision to push ahead with a controversial bill that would allow extraditions to the mainland, alarming locals and spooking the local business community.
The ransacking of the legislature came on the anniversary of the 1997 handover, as tens of thousands of people marched peacefully in a separate annual protest that passed near the complex.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong-based broadcaster TVB said police arrested at least 13 people in relation to the occupation of the complex. Dozens more suspects have been identified and a wave of further arrests is expected in “the near future,” the South China Morning Post newspaper reported Thursday, citing unidentified people in law enforcement.
“The protesters now risk losing the moral high ground. This could be a turning point,” said Wang Huiyao, an adviser to China’s Cabinet and founder of the Center for China and Globalization. “The violence could destroy their credibility, and it will be hard for anyone in the West to defend. They will also alienate people who supported the movement.”
State broadcaster China Central Television aired footage Tuesday of Lam denouncing the demonstrators and video of police riding in to secure the building. A website run by the Communist Party’s nationalist Global Times said the chaos “disrupted public order and challenges the rule of law.”
It’s a narrative that challenges some of China’s external critics, leading to an usually public war of words with the U.K., which has usually prioritized smooth relations with Beijing since returning Hong Kong.
Prime Minister Theresa May told Parliament she was “shocked” by the scenes of violence and, after Chinese Ambassador to London Liu Xiaoming accused the British government of meddling, summoned him to the Foreign Office to explain.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to “let it be” and not apply new pressure to Hong Kong, while his rival to succeed May as Conservative Party leader, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, said that he stands with the city’s residents “every inch of the way.”
“The U.K. government chose to stand on the wrong side, it has made inappropriate remarks, not only to interfere in the internal affairs of Hong Kong but also to back up the violent lawbreakers,” Liu said in a televised statement Wednesday. He also said Britain has tried to “obstruct” Hong Kong authorities from “bringing the criminals to justice, which is utter interference in Hong Kong’s rule of law.”
The Chinese government has taken an increasingly firm line against both perceived meddling and the more radical protesters. The Foreign Ministry and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office have denounced the protesters who stormed the legislature as “extremists.”
On Tuesday, ministry spokesman Geng Shuang described Western criticisms as “an ugly act of hypocrisy” while warning countries to choose their words and actions carefully. From the outset of the protests, Beijing has obliquely hinted at the role of “foreign interference” in instigating unrest.
In the long run, “it is hard to see a happy ending to this impasse,” Simon Pritchard, global research director at Gavekal, wrote in a note.
“On the Hong Kong side, the student holidays will end and the pragmatism that characterizes most of the population may persuade all but a hard core of protesters to back away,” Pritchard said. “If something like this does play out, it will be a fragile truce until the next big challenge to Hong Kong’s way of life comes around.”