BEIJING/HONG, KONG – China said violent protests in Hong Kong wouldn’t be tolerated, in the Beijing government’s most high-profile response to unrest rocking the Asian financial hub.
The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, which answers to China’s Cabinet, reaffirmed its support for the city’s government and police in a rare briefing Monday in Beijing. Office spokesman Yang Guang said the country remained committed to the “one country, two systems” that has ensured the former British colony’s autonomy since its return in 1997.
“What has happened in Hong Kong recently has gone far beyond the scope of peaceful march and demonstration, undermined Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, and touched on the bottom line of the principle of ‘one country, two systems,'” Yang said. “No civilized society under the rule of law would ever allow acts of violence to take place.”
The South China Morning Post newspaper called the briefing a first since Hong Kong returned from British rule in 1997.
China called the briefing after a weekend of demonstrations illustrated the challenge of quelling a protest movement that’s leaderless, unpredictable and widespread. What began eight weeks ago as a mass movement to stop the passage of legislation that would ease extraditions to mainland China has since widened to include calls for Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s resignation and an investigation into the force used by police as they’ve dispersed crowds.
“We call on the general public of Hong Kong to be aware of the grave nature of the current situation and to jointly condemn the evil and criminal acts committed by the radical elements and prevent them from causing trouble to Hong Kong,” Yang said.
Police deployed tear gas and rubber bullets throughout downtown Hong Kong Sunday to clear thousands of protesters who gathered to air their grievances for the eighth straight weekend. Demonstrators marched east through the city’s central business district, then west, before splitting in two.
The tactics seemed to catch police off guard as demonstrators again focused their anger at officers following a day of clashes in Yuen Long near the mainland Chinese border.
Earlier Monday, an edition of the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper urged Hong Kong’s police to take stern action to quell ongoing unrest in the city. “At a time like this, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Government and the police should not hesitate or have any unnecessary ‘psychological worries’ about taking necessary steps” to restore order, said the piece published in the overseas edition of the People’s Daily newspaper.
Hong Kong Police Commissioner Stephen Lo praised his officers’ professionalism in their handling of weekend protests and said they must persist and protect the city’s rule of law, the Hong Kong Economic Times reported Monday, citing an internal announcement. His comments came as activists said they plan to widen their actions — including strikes — in a bid to force Lam to meet their demands, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reported.
Police on Sunday sought to defend China’s main representative office in Hong Kong from protesters for the second consecutive weekend, with the building near the heart of the financial center fortified with barricades.
Police said they had arrested at least 49 people in relation to Sunday’s protests for offenses including unauthorized assembly and possession of offensive weapons.
With demonstrators dispersed across four separate districts over the weekend, it was hard to tell how many took part compared with previous weeks. Protesters said thousands joined an airport sit-in, and about 300,000 people took part in Saturday’s march through Yuen Long, where train commuters, including a lawmaker, were attacked last weekend. Police wouldn’t estimate crowd sizes because all but one protest lacked a permit. Injuries — some serious — were reported among demonstrators and police.
Millions have taken part in street protests against a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be sent to China to face trial in Communist Party-controlled courts.
The protests, which saw hundreds storm the city’s legislature on July 1, are the most serious political crisis in Hong Kong since it returned to China 22 years ago, and pose the greatest popular challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that promised wide-ranging freedoms denied to citizens in mainland China.
Many fear Beijing is increasingly chipping away at those freedoms.
On Sunday, several protesters carried American flags as they marched, threatening to further stoke tensions between China and the U.S. even as high-level trade talks restart on Monday. Beijing this week said Washington should remove its “black hand” from Hong Kong’s protests, some of its most pointed criticism yet against what it says is American interference in the city’s affairs. The U.S. denies backing the protests.
China’s complaints have increased as the U.S. issues statements urging it to respect the rights of protesters who oppose its increasing control over the city. Xi has so far maintained support for Lam in part to avoid setting a precedent in which popular demonstrations initiate political change.
The protests have at times paralyzed parts of the financial district, shut government offices and disrupted business operations across the city. Officials have also warned about the impact of the unrest on Hong Kong’s economy.