China’s top government office dealing with Hong Kong affairs voiced support for the territory’s government and police and condemned protesters in a rare news conference on Monday afternoon.
“We call on people from all walks of life in Hong Kong to unequivocally oppose and resist violence,” said Yang Guang, spokesman for the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, calling protesters “radical elements” committing “evil and criminal acts.”
He affirmed Beijing’s support for Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and praised police for “fearlessly sticking to their posts and fulfilling their duties against all odds.”
Asked whether China would consider military intervention in Hong Kong, Yang pointed to Article 14 of the former British colony’s Basic Law, which states that the People’s Liberation Army will not interfere in the semiautonomous territory unless requested by the Hong Kong government “in the maintenance of public order” or for disaster relief.
Scenes of chaos stretched across central Hong Kong as police fired tear gas into subway stations and on pedestrian overpasses, and protesters fought back with bricks and water hoses.
The protests began as peaceful demonstrations against an extradition bill that would allow suspected criminals to be deported to China for trial. Protesters feared this would threaten Hong Kong’s rule of law and freedom of speech, as dissidents and activists are often arrested on trumped-up charges within the mainland Chinese system.
Hong Kong exists under a “one country, two systems” arrangement that is meant to guarantee the territory’s semiautonomous legal system and rights protections until 2047.
Critics say China has been steadily impinging on the system over the last few years by kidnapping booksellers, disqualifying pro-democracy legislators and pushing laws — such as the extradition bill — that strengthen Beijing’s control.
Yang spelled out Beijing’s stance on “one country, two systems” on Monday, saying the concept stands on “three red lines that must never be crossed”: no undermining China’s national sovereignty, no challenging the central government’s power, and no use of Hong Kong for “infiltration and sabotage activities on the mainland.”
“Between ‘one country’ and ‘two systems,’ ‘one country’ is like a root. Only by taking deep root can a tree grow strong and big,” Yang said. “We can only ensure ‘two systems’ on the basis of ‘one country.’”
The condemnation by the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office echoed the stance of other Chinese officials and state media’s portrayal of Hong Kong’s protesters as trouble-making rioters manipulated by the United States.
State media argue that the young would be satisfied if they could benefit from financial prosperity through further integration with mainland China, a point repeated by spokeswoman Xu Luying at the news conference.
“Development is a golden key to address various issues in Hong Kong,” Xu said, adding that the central government would “introduce more policies and measures for more Hong Kong residents to live more conveniently in the mainland.”
But many Hong Kongers see Beijing’s control over the territory as a core reason for economic inequality, lack of welfare and decline in living standards in the densely populated territory.
Beijing holds sway over Hong Kong’s Legislative Council because it is not democratically elected and gives electoral groups called functional constituencies more power than the popular vote. Pro-establishment elites dominate these groups and are able to pass unpopular laws — on hot-button issues such as housing, for example — despite public opinion against them.
Younger generations have also developed a Hong Kong-centric identity strengthened by their knowledge of and resistance to corruption, abuses of power, crackdown on civil society and lack of rule of law in mainland China. While mainland Chinese education inculcates its youth with a sense of nationalism, Hong Kong youth activism cut its teeth on movements against authoritarian education reform.
The 2014 Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement aimed to reform the territory’s electoral system so that universal suffrage would determine Hong Kong’s representation. The movement failed, and most of its leaders were imprisoned.
Protesters’ demands have expanded from withdrawal of the extradition bill to demands for democratic reform, Lam’s resignation and independent investigation of accusations of police abuse and collusion with gangs.
Representatives of Hong Kong’s business, law, aviation, education and religious spheres have called for an independent inquiry into recent violence.
The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong released a survey Monday showing multinational businesses operating in the territory had been hurt by the unrest and political deadlock.
The chamber’s president, Tara Joseph, called for the government to show “clear leadership” to stabilize Hong Kong by withdrawing the extradition bill and establishing an internationally credible independent inquiry into the political turmoil.
“The government needs to address the underlying causes of the protests and not simply to paper over the cracks of social instability with a short-term law-and-order fix,” Joseph said.
On Friday, a group of civil servants will hold a rally demanding an independent inquiry and for Lam to respond to protesters.
The protesters, who have no central leadership, have said they will not stop demonstrating until Hong Kong’s government meets their core demands of withdrawal of the extradition bill, Lam’s resignation, the release of political prisoners, independent investigation into accusations of police violence, and electoral reform.