HONG KONG – Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said Friday that Chinese people are able to handle their own issues, in what appeared to be the first public response from a top Chinese leader over Hong Kong’s monthslong social unrest.
Asked at a news conference about Hong Kong’s unending protests against an extradition bill, Li said the Chinese government will staunchly uphold the “one country, two systems” principle and the directives of “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” with a “high degree of autonomy.”
“(We) support the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government in stopping violence and chaos and restoring order in accordance with the law, also to protect, maintain Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability,” he said alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is on a three-day trip in China.
Also responding to the issue, Merkel said the Hong Kong government’s concession Wednesday to the protesters’ key demand, namely full withdrawal of the bill to allow extradition of fugitives to mainland China, has set a good foundation for talks with them.
“Everything must be done to avoid violence,” Merkel said in German. “Only through political dialogue would there be a solution. The Hong Kong chief executive has sent a signal, (that she is) willing to start a dialogue. I hope this dialogue will be materialized.
“Another important signal was that Hong Kong has said the controversial bill has been withdrawn. I hope, on that basis, protesters exercise their civil rights to participate in dialogue,” she said.
Merkel also urged for respect to Hong Kong citizens’ freedoms and rights under the “one country, two systems” framework and as stipulated in the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984.
Chinese diplomats have repeatedly and openly claimed that the treaty has been void since 1997 when the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule, and accused foreign governments of interfering in China’s internal affairs by stirring up trouble in the territory.
The announced withdrawal of the bill by Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, who caved to snowballing public discontent against the bill since it was introduced in March, has apparently failed to quell the ongoing protests.
Apart from calling for the bill’s full withdrawal, the protesters have sought an independent inquiry into alleged police violence, pardons for arrested protesters, a retraction of the term “riot,” and democratic reform.
For the past few days, protesters have been rallying outside a police station in Mong Kok, a densely populated area in the Kowloon Peninsula, to protest police brutality against protesters and commuters who were attacked by riot police inside the nearby Prince Edward Station last Saturday, as seen in television clips.
Late in the day Friday, police fired tear gas and beanbag rounds to disperse hundreds of protesters rallying outside the police station, who then moved to occupy Nathan Road by making roadblocks and setting them on fire. At least two subway stations along the road were vandalized as police retreated.
After hours of mayhem, police regrouped and dispersed the remaining crowd later in the night.
Protesters also called for a traffic-blocking campaign Saturday aiming to disrupt operations at the international airport on Lantau Island.
A march is also planned for Sunday at the U.S. Consulate General to support the legislation of a Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would empower the U.S. government to penalize Hong Kong officials found to have persecuted protesters.