The latest protests in Hong Kong appear to have touched a nerve in Beijing, where officials and state media have escalated rhetoric against the pro-democracy movement, accusing the United States of interference and ominously affirming the People’s Liberation Army’s ability to intervene at the Hong Kong government’s request.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian said at a news conference Wednesday morning that the protests on Sunday were “intolerable.”
“Some radical protesters’ actions challenge the authority of the central government and the bottom line of ‘One Country, Two Systems,’” Wu said, adding that the ministry would follow Article 14 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
“One Country, Two Systems” is China’s way of referring to its administration of Hong Kong, under which it is part of China but allowed to maintain some degree of autonomy. Article 14 states that the Chinese government’s military forces stationed in Hong Kong will not interfere in local affairs unless the Hong Kong government requests assistance “in the maintenance of public order” or for disaster relief.
As mass protests against a proposed extradition bill morphed into a desperate pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong over the last two months, the local government has denied rumors that the Chinese military might intervene. Some analysts who study Hong Kong expressed skepticism that Beijing would send its military, which could have devastating consequences.
But Chinese officials and media are now stoking nationalist anger with rhetoric that’s been used to pave the way for crackdowns in the past, specifically with accusations of foreign intervention and condemnations of “chaos” and “disorder.”
Sunday’s protests broadened the scope of conflict as protesters shifted from targeting the Hong Kong territorial government and police to directly challenging the Chinese government.
Thousands marched to Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong, chanting a pro-independence slogan. They splattered the Chinese government emblem with eggs and black ink and spray-painted the walls with derogatory terms for China.
Later that night, organized pro-Beijing thugs rampaged through a mass transit station in the northern rural area of Yuen Long, beating civilians with metal rods and wooden sticks.
Public fury has swelled against Hong Kong’s police force, which didn’t arrive until an hour after the attacks began and then disappeared before the mob returned to continue attacking people.
Lynette Ong, a University of Toronto political scientist who’s researched the employment of “thugs for hire” in mainland China, said this is a common practice and was used against protesters during the 2014 Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong.
“Governments outsource violence to third-party agents for ‘plausible deniability,’” Ong said, adding that the thugs in this case could also have been hired by business interests who want protests to end.
During a pro-Beijing rally on Saturday, Hong Kong newspaper executive Arthur Shek gave a speech encouraging crowds to “discipline” pro-democracy protesters with canes and PVC pipes. “Caning the kids is teaching them, not violence,” he said.
Shek has since resigned, after staff of his paper signed a petition condemning his remarks.
Video has emerged of pro-establishment legislator Junius Ho shaking hands with some of the men in white, as well as of police officers speaking with them, despite official claims that the police had made no arrests that night because they “could not be sure of who was involved.”
Police have since arrested 11 men in connection with the attacks on charges of unlawful assembly. They’ve also arrested more than 120 people in connection with pro-democracy protests since early June.
Protesters trashed Ho’s legislative office Monday and damaged Ho’s parents’ gravestones, spray-painting “official-triad collusion” on a wall above them.
In response, Ho posted a Facebook video making death threats against pro-democratic legislator Eddie Chu, who has spoken up against corruption in rural areas in the past and argued with Ho on a local TV channel on Tuesday.
Ho said Chu had “two paths” before him: “One is a path of being alive, one is a path of not being alive. You must choose which path to take. Decide soon,” he said.
There is no evidence of any connection between Chu and the graveyard vandalism.
While Hong Kongers raise an outcry against the Yuen Long attack, Chinese media have fixated on protesters’ defacement of the Chinese government office.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a news conference Tuesday that the vandalism was a “radical, illegal, violent action” and a “serious challenge to the bottom line of ‘One Country, Two Systems,’” adding that foreign powers were obviously directing these actions behind the scenes.
“Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong. China will absolutely not allow any foreign power to intervene in Hong Kong affairs,” Hua said. “We urge America to withdraw their black hands from Hong Kong before it is too late.”
There has been no evidence of U.S. involvement in the Hong Kong protests, although the U.S.-China trade war has frayed relations between Beijing and Washington.
State media and Chinese social media, which is censored so that only state-approved content appears, shared portrayals of the Hong Kong protesters as violent mobs attacking police and threatening Chinese sovereignty while a “silent majority” of pro-Beijing Hong Kongers cried for help to protect Hong Kong from violence.
State media have said nothing about the Yuen Long mob so far, but social media posts supporting the attackers have been allowed to proliferate.
“If someone wanted to invade your homeland, wouldn’t you resist them rather than welcoming them?” wrote one commenter in defense of the white-shirted attackers. “These rioters came to Yuen Long to create riots first, then the locals in white shirts resisted them.”
It’s a turnaround from earlier media strategy in mainland China, where the peaceful million-person marches in Hong Kong in June were censored.
Only when protesters broke into the legislative building on July 1 did Chinese media begin reporting on the Hong Kong protesters, framed as troublemaking rioters under foreign influence.
“It is like what they tried to do when broadcasting images of upheavals in Western countries to portray an impression of chaotic democracy,” said Ho-fung Hung, sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University. “But such efforts could easily backfire.”
“The mobilization of thugs could further delegitimize the government and make the protest boil over further. The showing of protest footage could also encourage mainland citizens to imitate,” Ho said.
Jeff Wasserstrom, a historian at UC Irvine, said the state narrative’s portrayal of Hong Kong protesters resembles how Chinese Communist Party leadership spoke about student protesters in Tiananmen Square in the lead-up to the massacre in 1989.
“The CCP leadership promulgated the notion 30 years ago that what were, in fact, overwhelmingly nonviolent and broadly supported gatherings in Tiananmen and public squares in scores of other cities were somehow creating ‘chaos,’” Wasserstrom said.
An official obituary said Li “made decisive moves to stop the turmoil” in 1989, playing “an important role in the major struggle concerning the future and fate of the Party and the state.”
At the same time, Chinese leader Xi Jinping seems so far determined to avoid a repeat of Tiananmen.
Willy Lam, professor in Chinese politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said that Xi is hesitant to deploy troops because it would mean an end to the “One Country, Two Systems” setup, which is supposed to guarantee Hong Kong semi-autonomy until 2047.
Chinese troops in Hong Kong’s streets might also drive out the thousands of multinational businesses headquartered in Hong Kong, he said, which would be a major loss for Beijing.
Beijing seems to be using the same strategy as in 2014, Lam said: “Do nothing, make no concessions and wait for the protesters to make mistakes.”
But the current movement has far broader social support than the Occupy movement did in 2014, which means the protests may escalate rather than fade away.
The march planned for Saturday in Yuen Long may be “explosive,” Lam said.
One idea that’s gaining traction is for the government to establish an independent judiciary-led inquiry into both police and protester violence over the last two months.
Dozens of ex-Hong Kong officials and legislators, the Hong Kong Bar Assn., the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce and more than 60 family members of police officers have voiced support for such a commission.
Setting up such an inquiry would be “painful” for Beijing, Lam said, but might be the “least costly maneuver” given the alternatives of “losing face” by withdrawing the bill, especially now that domestic anger is ramped up, or escalating into military intervention.
Global attention plays a crucial role in what happens next in Hong Kong, Wasserstrom said.
“This is a pivotal moment in one of the great David and Goliath struggles of contemporary times. It has been extraordinary how often the David in this case has been able to stand up to the Goliath,” Wasserstrom said.
“That does not mean it can necessarily keep happening and that the Goliath in Beijing will not change its strategy.”
Nicole Liu and Gaochao Zhang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.