Beijing offers full support to regions leader in rare remarks from government office

China has offered its full support to Hong Kongs embattled leader and its police force, and said violent protesters must be swiftly punished, in rare remarks by the government office that oversees policy towards the territory.

Hong Kong has been rocked by two months of escalating pro-democracy protests that have posed the most significant challenge to Beijings authority since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

In its first press conference since 1997, the state councils Hong Kong and Macau affairs office said the protests were horrendous incidents that have caused serious damage to the rule of law.

No civilised society or rule of law society will tolerate rampant violence, said Yang Guang, a spokesman for the office. Yang said the violence, which he blamed on a few radicals, had seriously undermined Hong Kongs prosperity and stability.

In our view, the most dangerous situation in Hong Kong is that violent crimes have not been effectively stopped, he added. The most important task of Hong Kong at present is to resolutely punish violent crimes according to law, restore social stability as soon as possible, and safeguard Hong Kongs good legal system.

Quick guide

What are the Hong Kong protests about?

Why are people protesting?

The protests were triggered by a controversial bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where the Communist party controls the courts, but have since evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement.

Public anger fuelled by the aggressive tactics used by the police against demonstrators has collided with years of frustration over worsening inequality and the cost of living in one of the world’s most expensive, densely populated cities.

The protest movement was given fresh impetus on 21 July when gangs of men attacked protesters and commuters at a mass transit station while authorities seemingly did little to intervene.

Underlying the movement is a push for full democracy in the city, whose leader is chosen by a committee dominated by a pro-Beijing establishment rather than by direct elections.

Protesters have vowed to keep their movement going until their core demands are met, such as the resignation of the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, an independent inquiry into police tactics, an amnesty for those arrested and a permanent withdrawal of the bill.

Why were people so angry about the extradition bill?

Hongkongers have seen Beijings influence grow in recent years, as activists have been jailed and pro-democracy lawmakers disqualified from running or holding office. Independent booksellers have disappeared from the city, before reappearing in mainland China facing charges.

Under the terms of the agreement by which the former British colony was returned to Chinese control in 1997, the semi-autonomous region was meant to maintain a high degree of autonomy through an independent judiciary, a free press and an open market economy, a framework known as one country, two systems.

The extradition bill was seen as an attempt to undermine this and to give Beijing the ability to try pro-democracy activists under the judicial system of the mainland.

How have the authorities responded?

Lam has shown no sign of backing down beyond agreeing to suspend the extradition bill, while Beijing has issued increasingly shrill condemnations but has left it to the city’s semi-autonomous government to deal with the situation. Meanwhile police have violently clashed directly with protesters, repeatedly firing teargas and rubber bullets.

Lily Kuo and Verna Yu in Hong Kong

The last eight weeks of protests were sparked by a now delayed bill that would allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China, but most recently the anger has pivoted towards the police, who have been accused of using excessive force.

Protesters have also focused their ire on what many believe to be collusion between the authorities and triads, Hong Kongs organised crime groups, after masked and armed thugs conducted vicious attacks on metro commuters, protesters and journalists on 21 July.

At the press conference on Monday the Hong Kong office said rumours of police or Chinese involvement in the attacks were unfounded and insulting.

Echoing statements previously made by state-owned media and other Beijing officials, the spokesman also sharply criticised foreign interference, blaming western politicians for trying to cause trouble in the country.

Yang Guang, the spokesperson for mainland Chinas Hong Kong and Macau affairs office. Photograph: Wang Zhao/AFP/Getty Images

Hours before the briefing on Monday, the Peoples Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist party, called on the Hong Kong government and police to not hesitate and do what needs to be done to end the weeks of protest.

For some time, the power of the Hong Kong police has been severely limited by politics, public opinion, and even the judicial environment, said one editorial, describing protesters as thugs and militants who have undermined stability in Hong Kong.

Facing these circumstances the Hong Kong government and police should not have any hesitation or any psychological burden do what needs to be done. The article called on the police to punish lawbreakers regardless of whether they hold up the banner of freedom and democracy or wear the cap of civil disobedience.

Mondays remarks by government officials and the party paper are the strongest statements Beijing has made since the mass protests began in June. Observers have been looking for clues as to how Beijing would respond and the possibility of escalation, including deploying the Peoples Liberation Army, which has a garrison in Hong Kong.

At the briefing, the spokesperson sidestepped a question on potential intervention, saying he had nothing to add to what was already stated in the Basic Law, the citys constitution. Last week, an official from the Chinese defence ministry said Beijing could legally intervene should the Hong Kong government ask for help in maintaining social order.

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In a front-page article in the overseas edition of the Peoples Daily on Monday, the paper also criticised the Civil Human Rights Front, a group in Hong Kong that has organised mass marches against the extradition bill. The paper accused the group of collaborating with western forces and warned citizens to keep their eyes open to such groups who lead the wolves into your home and hurt the country.

[China] will never allow any foreign forces to collaborate with the internal forces, endanger Hong Kongs development, and trample on one country, two systems, the article said.

With anger mounting over police violence, including the use of teargas in residential areas over the weekend, there is no end in sight to the mass demonstrations. Protests are scheduled for the next three weeks all over the territory, including a mass transit strike, a rally by civil servants and a city-wide strike.

For the Chinese Communist party, the continuing crisis in Hong Kong is not only a direct challenge to its authority but also damaging to its domestic prestige and international reputation, said Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Australia.

Essentially, Beijing just doesnt have any simple short-term answers to the current impasse, he said. Beijings Hong Kong problem is here to stay.



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