China’s top agencies in charge of Hong Kong affairs held a special meeting across the border in Shenzhen to discuss unrest in the financial hub that’s become a wider challenge to Beijing and raised questions about whether it should intervene more directly.
The seminar was jointly held by the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council and China’s liaison office in the city. It came hours after Hong Kong police again fired tear gas at hundreds of demonstrators who besieged a police station Tuesday night following the arrest of a student leader, after days of protest and clashes between protesters and police further roiled the city.
“The central government is highly concerned about Hong Kong’s situation, and trying to study, make decisions and arrangements from a strategic and across-the-board level,” Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said in opening remarks. “Hong Kong is facing the most serious situation since its return to China, therefore today’s seminar is very important.”
He said there were some “500 friends from Hong Kong” in attendance and that he hoped they could speak frankly. Hong Kong delegates to both the National People’s Congress – China’s rubber stamp parliament – and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a top advisory body, were asked to attend, Radio Television Hong Kong reported.
Pro-establishment Hong Kong lawmaker Michael Tien said he would use the meeting to press Chinese officials to tell local leader Carrie Lam to withdraw the extradition bill that first sparked protests and order an independent inquiry into the affair, RTHK said. Tien said those had emerged as the top two demands in talks he held with protesters Monday.
Zhang’s office held a rare briefing Tuesday, issuing some of the Chinese government’s strongest comments yet on the unrest that has gripped Hong Kong for nine weeks. They agency doubled down on support for Lam, saying opposition efforts to force her resignation would fail.
Many Hong Kong residents feel Beijing has been increasingly encroaching on their freedoms. The protests were set off by proposed extradition legislation that if passed would have allowed some suspects to be sent to China, where critics say they could face possible torture and unfair trials.
China so far has not visibly intervened in the situation, though in editorials and statements from officials it has condemned demonstrators and protest organizers as criminals, clowns and “violent radicals” and alleged that they have been inflamed by politicians from the U.S., Taiwan and elsewhere.
Speculation that the military could be deployed grew after Chinese officials pointed to an article in Hong Kong law that allows troops already stationed in the city to help with “public order maintenance” at the Hong Kong government’s request.
Hong Kong authorities have said they don’t anticipate any need to bring in troops or police from China to help impose order. Observers say Beijing will likely try to wait the protesters out, hoping rising violence and inconvenience will turn the tide of public opinion against them.
Lam reappeared yesterday at the opening of an exhibition marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Communist state.
“Over recent months, conditions in Hong Kong society have been extremely unstable,” Lam said in remarks distributed by her office. “The special administrative region government will certainly join with all of you to deal with it calmly, restore social order, safeguard rule of law and cherish Hong Kong, cherish ‘one country, two systems,’ and cherish our home.”
Pro-democracy lawmakers continued to criticize Lam’s handling of the protests. Claudia Mo told reporters that Beijing and Lam were employing a two-pronged strategy of using the police force to handle the protesters physically while also attacking them ideologically by labeling their movement as seeking to destroy the “one country, two systems” framework.
“We all know this [Hong Kong] administration has become completely untrustworthy and this is just so sad for Hong Kong,” Mo said.
With Hong Kong’s crucial travel industry suffering as tourists put off their visits, Australia became the latest country to issue a travel safety warning to its citizens.
Australians should “exercise a high degree of caution,” in Hong Kong, the notice said. It said there was a risk of violent confrontation between protesters and police, or “criminally linked individuals,” and visitors should avoid large gatherings, especially at night and on weekends.
Ireland, Britain, and Japan have already issued Hong Kong travel warnings.
Protesters have come from all professions and age groups. Yesterday, several hundred lawyers sought a meeting with Secretary of Justice Teresa Cheng and staged a silent protest. The authorities have refused to open a dialogue with protesters and there was no immediate response from Cheng’s office.
Margaret Ng, a lawyer and a former lawmaker, said they wanted to meet Cheng and the director of public prosecution to seek an assurance that there was no political motive in prosecution of those detained in the protests.
More than 500 people have been arrested since the protests began in June and dozens have already been charged with rioting, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
“One of the most important things about the rule of law is prosecution must not be abused because if abused, it is the most powerful instrument of oppression,” Ng said.
She and other lawyers urged protesters to avoid violence that could harm their cause.
Lawyer Dennis Kwok said government warnings of stern measures against protesters will merely flame the people’s anger. He called for an independent investigation into the actions of police and protesters.
Another Chinese official said Tuesday that it would be “only a matter of time” before those behind the protests are punished, further indicating that Beijing will take a hard line against the demonstrators and has no plans to negotiate over their demands for political reforms.
“We would like to make it clear to the very small group of unscrupulous and violent criminals and the dirty forces behind them: Those who play with fire will perish by it,” said Yang Guang, spokesman for the Chinese Cabinet’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office.
At a daily briefing Wednesday, police spokesman Tse Chun-chung condemned members of a crowd of around 1,000 who the night before surrounded a police station to demand the release of a university student arrested for apparently buying laser pointers.
He said police fired 20 tear gas canisters to clear the demonstrators from the blue-collar Sham Shui Po neighborhood. A total of 589 people have been arrested in the protests ranging in age from 13 to 76, Tse said.
They include people caught in possession of laser pointers, which are classified as offensive weapons because of their ability to harm the eyes. MDT/Agencies