A day after a citywide strike evolved into chaotic clashes between protesters, police and residents across Hong Kong, the Chinese government, Hong Kong police and a group of protesters held news conferences pushing dueling narratives on what had happened.
Beijing issued its sharpest warning so far to Hong Kong protesters, calling them “arrogant lunatics” who should not underestimate the central government’s “immense force,” but did not take any new measures to control the situation.
“We warn that tiny minority of unscrupulous, violent, illegal actors and the black hands behind them: Those who play with fire will burn in it themselves. The punishment they deserve is imminent!” said Yang Guang, spokesman for the State Council’s Office of Hong Kong and Macau Affairs in a news conference.
Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents have been protesting since June over plans — since suspended — for an extradition law making it easier to transfer criminal defendants to mainland China. Under terms of its 1997 handover from Britain, Hong Kong is a semiautonomous territory of China.
Yang said the Chinese government and “all Chinese people” supported Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and that she would not resign. He praised Hong Kong police and repeated last week’s message that Hong Kong must return to “law and order.”
Yang did not rule out the possibility of military intervention by the People’s Liberation Army but said that the Hong Kong government and police were “fully capable” of restoring stability.
“The PLA is a strong force that defends every inch of its sacred territory,” Yang said, but added that China’s military will act according to Hong Kong law, which prohibits military interference unless requested by the Hong Kong government.
Police forces in Shenzhen, the closest Chinese city across the border from Hong Kong, held an anti-riot drill Tuesday. Riot police bearing shields and batons faced off in a cloud of tear gas against mock protesters wearing black T-shirts and yellow hard hats in a seemingly pointed message to Hong Kong protesters, who often dress that way.
State media said the drill was in preparation for festivities marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, which will be celebrated Oct. 1.
The Communist Party-run state is planning a major celebration meant to showcase the nation’s strength and military power, and has been especially sensitive to any perceived disrespect of China in preceding months.
State propaganda has fixated on Hong Kong protesters’ removal of two Chinese national flags that they threw into Victoria Harbor, for example, spreading nationalistic hashtags on Chinese social media in response.
Yang said: “1.4 billion Chinese people are all standard bearers. They defend the national flag.”
Protesters also held a news conference Tuesday for the first time since the anti-extradition bill movement began.
Three anonymous speakers wearing yellow hard hats and masks spoke to reporters in an office building in Mong Kok, a busy market area where multiple marches and clashes have taken place.
The news conference was organized through LIHKG, a Reddit-like social forum that protesters have used to plan actions, and broadcast live via local media on Facebook.
The speakers called it a “citizens’ press conference,” saying they were affiliated with no political organization and did not represent all protesters, but wanted to create a platform for people’s voices.
“This platform aims to act as a counterweight to the government’s monopoly on the political discourse,” one speaker said. “As the Chinese saying goes, rulers should not be left unchecked.”
The speakers disputed a claim that Hong Kong’s financial secretary Paul Chan had made about protests damaging Hong Kong’s economy, saying the economic slowdown had begun months before the protests and that external factors such as the U.S.-China trade war were to blame.
They said Hong Kong’s core value was “autonomy,” in contrast to Lam’s and Beijing’s statements that Hong Kong’s core value is the “rule of law” enforced by police.
“We call on the government to return the government back to the people,” one speaker read from a statement, adding that the government was ignoring the political crisis’ root causes and empowering police abuse of power against civilians.
The speakers read a list of alleged police abuses of power, saying the use of tear gas and rubber bullets was excessive and that police had assaulted civilians and colluded with organized criminal gangs, alluding to mob attacks on protesters at a mass transit station in July and in two different neighborhoods Monday night.
Police had lost their self-discipline and were acting like “enemies against the public,” a speaker said.
Hong Kong police announced that they had arrested 148 protesters Monday in addition to 420 people arrested since the protests began.
Police said they fired 800 tear gas rounds, 140 rubber bullets and 20 sponge bullets Monday in addition to a total of 1,000 tear gas rounds and 160 rubber bullets previously used since June 9.
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