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China says Hong Kong extradition protests were ‘riots’ sparked by foreign interference

Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators take to the street of Hong Kong on June 9, 2019, to protest against the extradition bill being put forward by the Hong Kong government, which the people of Hong Kong fear could be used as a political tool by the Beijing central government to arrest and transfer political activists who are against the Chinese government to the mainland. (Chan Long Hei/SOPA Images/Zuma Press/TNS)
June 15, 2019

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda machine swung into action on Thursday, characterizing mass protests in Hong Kong this week as a U.S.-led attempt to destabilize the city.

Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam and other city officials “have already spoken on the latest state of affairs, pointing out that what happened in the Admiralty area was not a peaceful rally, but a riot organized by a group,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said of Wednesday’s protests against plans to allow the extradition of alleged suspects to China.

“Any actions that harm the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong will be opposed by mainstream public opinion in Hong Kong,” Geng told a regular news briefing.

Social media users across the internal border in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong said their access to social media had been disrupted during the protests in Hong Kong, however, suggesting that Beijing is particularly worried that news of the protests will fuel dissent in mainland China.

“A lot of people’s circumvention tools to scale the Great Firewall aren’t working … they stopped working yesterday,” social media user Huang Yongxiang told RFA.

“Telegram has also come under attack,” Huang said, in reference to a secure messaging app that reported a cyberattack while being widely used by anti-extradition activists in Hong Kong.

“A lot of people can’t get onto [WhatsApp] either, although some have been able to,” Huang said. “All news [of the situation in Hong Kong] has been cut off, so a lot of people basically have no idea what is happening.”

“The party-state has always been afraid that if people in China found out about some major protests, that it would get a lot of people out onto the streets in support of Hong Kong; that the mainland would mobilize,” Huang said. “They have always feared this, so of course they have shut it down.”

Meanwhile, the Global Times newspaper, sister to the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, hit out at growing political support for the Hong Kong protesters in Washington.

The paper took issue in particular with Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s support for Sunday’s march of more than one million people against the “horrific” extradition bill which she said would “silence dissent and stifle the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.”

In an editorial, the paper said Pelosi’s comments–along with moves to pass new legislation questioning Hong Kong’s permanent status as a separate trading entity if the extradition law is changed–were “stark provocation.”

“These U.S. senators make us see the dark mind of the U.S. political elite who just want to turn Hong Kong into a chaotic place by hyping the uncontrolled violent street politics,” it said.

Blaming foreigners again

Bipartisan legislation introduced by Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, would require the U.S. secretary of state to issue an annual certification of Hong Kong’s autonomy to justify special treatment on trade.

It also calls for the protection of U.S. citizens and businesses from possible renditions to China.

Meanwhile, the English-language China Daily said in an editorial that the protesters had been “hoodwinked” into protesting by pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong “and their foreign allies.”

And Liu Xiaoming, Chinese ambassador to the U.K., apparently sought to distance Beijing from the changes to Hong Kong’s extradition law, in spite of a May 15 statement from Beijing’s Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong that was strongly supportive of the urgent passage of the legislation.

“As a matter of fact, Beijing … gave no instruction, no order about the making of this amendment,” Liu told the BBC, accusing both it and the news media generally of distorted reporting.

But an independent scholar in mainland China, who gave only her surname, Kong, said the Hong Kong government has no genuine autonomy when it comes to proposing changes to the city’s laws.

She said Lam was highly unlikely to have ordered the use of rubber and bean-bag bullets, tear gas and pepper spray against unarmed civilian protests without Beijing’s say-so.

“There is no way that Carrie Lam would dare to use force to put down a peaceful demonstration by the people of Hong Kong,” Kong said. “She was totally carrying out Beijing’s orders.”

China also hit back at the European Union, which had called on the Hong Kong authorities to respect the “fundamental right” of Hong Kong people to freedom of expression and association.

Crackdown expected

The E.U. said it shares many of the protesters’ concerns, warning that the changes could affect business confidence in Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs,” Geng Shuang said in response, calling the E.U.’s remarks irresponsible. “No country, organization or individual has the right to intervene in them.”

Beijing resident Guo Wenhao warned that protesters — many of whom covered their faces during Wednesday’s protests — will likely be pursued by the authorities after the crisis is over.

“The authorities will spare no effort to crack down, because once you have a situation involving the survival or fall of this regime, there is no longer any law or reason to speak of, only life-and-death,” Guo said.

“That has been our experience in Beijing,” he said, in a reference to the use of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tanks and machine guns to put down weeks of student-led protests in June, 1989.

A Beijing resident surnamed Guan said he agreed with the protesters’ fears, saying that China’s judiciary is firmly under the control of the ruling party, and subject to political direction at all times.

“If they don’t have this credibility, how can they impose this law on other people?” Guan said. “It’s not about closing loopholes in the law or arresting corrupt officials. They can do whatever they want with this law; it will be their plaything.”

A resident of the southwestern province of Sichuan said she also supported Hong Kong’s struggle.

“We have to support them on this in Hong Kong: if we don’t stand up, then who will speak out? Pretty soon it’ll be our turn, and then who will come to our aid?”

Authorities in Hong Kong shut down the city’s legislature on Thursday, after tens of thousands of people prevented a debate on the rendition of alleged criminal suspects to mainland China, and as civil rights groups planned another mass demonstration for the weekend.

The Legislative Council (LegCo) will remained closed for security purposes until the end of the week, amid international criticism of police violence in protests and clashes that left dozens of people injured.

Protest organizers the Civil Human Rights Front said they are planning another rally to keep up pressure on the government to withdraw the amendments, which drew more than a million people onto the streets last Sunday in a mass outpouring of public anger.

Reported by Fok Leung-kiu, Wong Lok-to and Ma Lap-hak for RFA’s Cantonese Service, and by Qiao Long for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.