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Beijing declares support for Hong Kong police and government, condemning protesters in rare press conference

Protesters attempt to use sand bags to block the road to slow down the police's advance towards them on Sunday, July 21, 2019 in Hong Kong. (Geovien So/SOPA Images/Zuma Press/TNS)

China’s top government office dealing with Hong Kong affairs voiced support for Hong Kong’s government and police and condemned protesters in a rare press 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 Macau Affairs Office, calling protesters “radical elements” committing “evil and criminal acts.”

Guang affirmed Beijing’s support for Hong Kong’s 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, Guang pointed to Article 14 of Hong Kong’s basic law, which states that the People’s Liberation Army will not interfere in Hong Kong unless requested by the Hong Kong government “in the maintenance of public order” or for disaster relief.

The statement comes in the eighth week of protests that have plunged the territory into political crisis and posed a direct challenge to China’s Communist Party-state authority.

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Violent clashes between protesters and police have erupted nearly every weekend, including two consecutive illegal protests on Saturday and Sunday that resulted in dozens of arrests and injuries.

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 semi-autonomous legal system and rights protections until 2047.

Critics say Beijing has been steadily impinging on the system over the last few years by kidnapping booksellers, disqualifying pro-democracy legislators, and pushing laws that strengthen Beijing’s control — like the extradition bill.

Yang spelled out Beijing’s stance on “One Country, Two Systems” 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.’”

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Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive Carrie Lam has suspended the bill and said it was “dead,” but not withdrawn it, leaving a legal possibility for reviving the bill once protests die down.

The State Council Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Offices’ condemnation echoed other Chinese officials and state media’s portrayal of Hong Kong’s protesters as trouble-making rioters manipulated by the United States.

State media argues 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 press 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 existing control over Hong Kong as a core reason for economic inequality, lack of welfare and declining 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 like 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 Hong Kong’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 alleged police abuse of force 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 Hong Kong 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 withdrawing the extradition bill, Lam’s resignation, releasing political prisoners, independent investigation into alleged police violence, and electoral reform.

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© 2019 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.