This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Hong Kong police arrested nearly 150 people during city-wide protests and street battles during Monday’s general strike, as the ruling Chinese Communist Party geared up for a top meeting with the city’s representatives to discuss the escalating anti-extradition movement.
“During the operation, the police arrested 148 people consisting of 95 males and 53 females, aged between 13 and 63 years old,” superintendent John Tse told journalists, who had just read out a statement condemning multiple incidents of violence against members of the press, and tapped their pens in a chorus of protest at the start of the daily police news conference.
Police had also fired around 800 tear gas rounds during Monday alone, almost as many as the 1,000 rounds fired altogether since protests began on June 6.
Police said they had also fired 140 rubber bullets and 20 sponge rounds.
Icarus Wong, a member of the Civil Rights Observer group, said he was shocked by the police figures, indicating a massive deployment of force against largely unarmed protesters and local residents who either came out to support them, or who were caught by teargas while going about their daily business.
“The extent of the police use of tear gas means that they are now firing more than 800 rounds in a single day,” he said. “But they also shot people using tear gas rounds, and actually hit people with them.”
“When deploying what are actually chemical weapons, they are supposed to use the minimum force necessary, and to show restraint, as well as some sense of proportionality,” Wong said.
Teachers, doctors and nurses, bus and train drivers, airline staff and lawyers all joined the general strike on Monday, as anti-extradition protests entered their ninth week.
Protester press conference
Meanwhile, protesters held their first press conference on Tuesday, in which they blamed the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam for the recent wave of protests and clashes, saying they strongly condemned the government’s “disgraceful behavior.”
In a bilingual press conference given by three protesters in yellow construction helmets, black clothing and face masks, the group said they had decided to speak to the press in order to counter government misinformation about the protests.
In particular, they hit out at recent economic warnings from financial secretary Paul Chan that the protests slowed down Hong Kong’s economy in the second quarter of this year.
“There’s a lack of direct connection between the slowing down of the economy in the second quarter and the protests,” a protester who gave his name as Jerry Chan said. “The escalation of the protests did not occur until June the 9th.”
“While only a minority of shops in the affected areas were closed early to avoid the protests, the impact of such was negligible in comparison to the overall size of the Hong Kong economy,” Chan said.
The protesters called on the government to meet the five demands of the anti-extradition movement, which include the formal withdrawal of amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance that would allow extradition to mainland China, and an independent inquiry into the police force’s handling of the protests, especially their failure to act during attacks by suspected triad gang members on July 21.
Across the border in mainland China, police in the border city of Shenzhen staged drills involving thousands of officers who were warding off attacks from “protesters” dressed similarly to those who have taken to the streets of Hong Kong in recent weeks, sparking fears that Beijing may be planning some form of intervention to curb growing protests in the city.
Shortly after the video of the drills was posted, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office spokesman Yang Guang told a news conference that recent demonstrations in Hong Kong had escalated into “extreme violence.”
“We believe that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) government and the Hong Kong Police Force are fully capable of punishing violent crimes and restoring social order and social stability,” Yang said.
He said China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison in Hong Kong would act in accordance with military law and Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which provides for PLA intervention if it is requested by the city authorities.
“Beijing will never allow Hong Kong to descend into the kind of chaos that the SAR government cannot control, and which harms national unity and security,” Yang warned, hitting out at Western and Taiwanese politicians for making “irresponsible comments” in support of the protests.
His comments drew swift criticism from pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong.
Pro-labor lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung, of the Neighborhood and Worker’s Service Center, said the pan-democratic camp in the Legislative Council (LegCo) said Yang would have done better to respond directly to the five demands of the protest movement.
“We have been insisting on the five major demands throughout the past two months of protests, so it’s a pity that the State Council didn’t respond to that at all during this press conference,” Leung told RFA.
“Everyone should know that the cause of the violence is the reluctance of the SAR Government to respond positively to these five major demands,” he said.
Veteran Chinese political commentator Willy Lam said the police video, and a similar PLA propaganda video released on Aug. 1, was a form of “psychological warfare” aimed at sowing fear in Hong Kong.
But he said it was unlikely that the PLA would be deployed in the city ahead of planned celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1.
“[President] Xi Jinping is currently focusing on the National Day military exercises on Oct. 1, the troops stationed in Hong Kong won’t be deployed until after Oct. 1 at the earlies,” Lam said.
“And this isn’t an easy decision for them to take, because the consequences of using the troops stationed in Hong Kong will be to affects China’s international standing, Hong Kong’s economy and the mainland’s economy,” he said.
Hong Kong political commentator Sang Pu said Beijing still seems to view Hong Kong protesters as “rioters,” and hit out at Yang’s reference to “righteous forces,” as encouraging attacks by suspected triad gangs in white and blue shirts, who have attacked protesters on several occasions in the past month.
“So who are these righteous forces? They are the white shirts from July , the blue shirts from Aug. 5, the threat lurking behind these words,” Sang said. “They are basically the triads and [ruling Chinese Communist Party] lackeys, and they are an important factor in the collusion between the police and the triads.”
“Hong Kong’s fighting spirit will be ground between these two huge cogs,” he said.
Meeting of delegates
Beijing has also called a meeting with delegates to the city’s branch of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), in Shenzhen on Wednesday morning, local media reported.
NPC delegate Tian Beichen, said that the meeting had no agenda, but that he believes central government officials should learn about the latest situation in Hong Kong.
The news has sparked concerns that the meeting could be a precursor to a more hardline and hands-on crackdown by China in Hong Kong, which has been gripped by multiple mass protests and street battles that have seen an unprecedented level of public support for the anti-extradition movement.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Beijing is ill-equipped to deal with the situation.
“When faced with public criticism, it simply imprisons its critics or crushes protests,” HRW China director Sophie Richardson wrote on the group’s website.
“Beijing has indicated that Hong Kong authorities should deal with the protests, but it is unclear whether the central government would allow those in Hong Kong room to respond to popular demands,” she said. “Nor is it clear if Hong Kong authorities even want to try.”
“Students, parents, judges, business owners, civil servants, and many others in Hong Kong are standing up to make sure their rights are respected. Hong Kong authorities should seriously consider these calls—and Beijing should not be standing in the way,” Richardson said.