Hong Kong police announced late Tuesday night that 44 of the 49 protesters arrested after clashes with police Sunday would be charged with rioting, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
The charges came a day after Beijing’s highest government office for Hong Kong affairs held a news conference to declare its support for the Chinese territory’s government and police and say that a return to law and order should be the “most pressing priority.”
“If Hong Kong’s chaos continues, the whole society will pay,” said Yang Guang, spokesman for the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs office.
A U.S. official told reporters Tuesday that the White House is monitoring a “congregation of Chinese forces” at the Hong Kong border, according to Bloomberg. Chinese officials and media are portraying protests as foreign-instigated attempts to destabilize China.
Asked whether China would send military forces into Hong Kong, Yang only referred to an article of Hong Kong law that says the People’s Liberation Army will not interfere in local affairs unless requested by the Hong Kong government.
At least 170 people have been arrested in connection with protests that have roiled Hong Kong for the last eight weeks over a proposed extradition bill that would allow suspected criminals to be removed to China.
Hong Kong’s government has suspended action on the bill, but what started as peaceful marches have evolved into a desperate movement of weekly — now almost daily — clashes with police as protesters demand full withdrawal of the bill, an independent investigation of alleged police violence, the chief executive’s resignation, release of political prisoners and electoral reform.
The 44 are the first group connected with the extradition bill protests to be charged with rioting. Edward Leung, a pro-independence activist, was jailed for six years after being found guilty of the same offense in clashes with police in 2016.
Leung’s pro-independence slogan, “Reclaim Hong Kong; revolution of our times,” has become a rallying cry for current protesters, who chant it in marches and spray paint it on police stations and government buildings.
Hundreds of protesters surrounded the police station where the arrested protesters were being held after the announcement on Tuesday night, chanting that refrain along with a Cantonese phrase of encouragement, “Add oil!”
Clashes broke out when a small group of riot police came out of the station, unleashing pepper spray on the protesters, who threw umbrellas and other objects at them. One police officer was seen aiming a Remington shotgun at protesters, causing panic, though a police source later told local media that the gun was loaded with beanbag rounds.
Protesters also gathered at a second police station Tuesday night after two people were arrested at a nearby Lennon Wall, one of dozens of walls bearing pro-democracy sticky notes that protesters have created across the city’s pedestrian tunnels, overhead walkways, bus stops and buildings in recent weeks.
Around 2:45 a.m., somebody shot fireworks out of a moving car into the crowd of protesters, an incident captured on video and posted on social media. Five people were taken to the hospital while a sixth refused medical treatment, police said. Protesters have been arrested in hospital for having participated in anti-extradition bill protests.
Police said that the fireworks were not launched by officials and that they were investigating the incident.
Hundreds of supporters braved a tropical cyclone warning to rally outside the court where the arrested protesters were scheduled to appear Wednesday morning.
“No rioters, only tyranny! Reclaim Hong Kong, revolution of our times!” they chanted.