Demonstrators break a fence to occupy the road in Hong Kong on July 27, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, an administrative agency of China’s cabinet, held a rare 40-minute press conference in Beijing today (July 29) in response to recent violent clashes and escalating political instability that has brought parts of Hong Kong to a standstill.

Yang Guang, the office’s news spokesman, reiterated the central government’s “resolute support” for Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration and praised the Hong Kong police’s handling of the mass protests. He told reporters that Beijing regards the “one country, two systems” framework as the best way to continue governing the territory.

He condemned “radical protesters” for using violence and causing injury. The central government’s three hopes for Hong Kong, the news spokesmen said, are that various sectors firmly oppose violence, firmly safeguard the rule of law, and for society to resolve political conflicts as soon as possible.

Hong Kong’s leadership must “find ways to push for economic development and solve grievances of youngsters on quality of life and career prospects,” Yang said, with his counterpart, spokeswoman Xu Luying, acknowledging “deep-rooted problems” that impede young people’s economic mobility and access to housing in further remarks.

Yang went on to reiterate Beijing’s bottom lines that it would not tolerate, namely any challenge to national security, the central government’s authority and the territory’s Basic Law, and the use of Hong Kong as a base to undermine China were cited. Beijing has accused Western governments, especially the United States, of interfering in Hong Kong’s politics.

“Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s internal affairs are those of China. Interference is not allowed. Politicians in Western countries have repeatedly made a lot of remarks. Their intention, to put it frankly, is to make Hong Kong a trouble for China and to create difficulties for China’s development,” he told reporters.

Yang Guang, spokesperson for mainland China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council, speaks at a press conference in Beijing on July 29, 2019. Photo: AFP/Wang Zhao

Those messages, however, don’t resonate with many Hongkongers. “This was a pretty meaningless press conference,” Willy Lam, adjunct professor at the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Asia Times.

“They have offered no new solutions to the deep-seated contradictions in Hong Kong’s political structure which have given rise to the protests and so forth. The takeaway is that Beijing has actually not come up with any solution. They are just holding their ground and waiting for protesters to make their mistakes,” he said.

“There won’t be any new initiatives, they were merely saying they would provide more economic opportunities for young people because they think a key reason for the protests is economically-based and [due to] a lack of upward economic mobility and so forth.

“None of this will actually please the protesters and I’m afraid that the situation will get worse. Young people are looking for answers and they didn’t get any,” Lam believes.

When asked by a reporter whether the Hong Kong garrison of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would be deployed on the streets, Yang said he had no further remarks on the matter and referred to Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which states that the city’s government can ask Beijing to deploy its troops for assistance in maintaining public order and disaster relief.

“I was expecting them to come down harder on this and give a stronger hint that if the situation breaks into anarchy, they would deploy their forces, but they did not,” Lam said.

A spokesperson for China’s Defense Ministry last week raised the prospect of deploying its soldiers for operations within Hong Kong if the city’s government requested it, an ominous remark that sent jitters through the business community and raised concerns that Beijing’s patience may be waning.

Demonstrators were seen prying bricks from the sidewalk, some of which were thrown toward advancing police, July 28, 2019. Photo: Nile Bowie.

“The situation would have to deteriorate much, much further before [Chinese President] Xi Jinping will consider using the PLA garrison,” said the academic. “Both internationally and economically, the adverse impact on Hong Kong as a financial center and the impact on the multinationals based in Hong Kong, the costs just be would be too high.”

Today’s press conference followed two consecutive days of violent protests, in the town of Yuen Long on Saturday and Western districts of Hong Kong Island on Sunday, which were not approved by police.

Tens of thousands defied the ban on assembly on Sunday and marched to Sai Ying Pun, where China’s main representative office in the city is located.

Hundreds of riot police with shields blocked activists from advancing toward the building, which was heavily fortified with water-filled barricades after it was surrounded and defaced with ink and graffiti a week earlier. Rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets, sponge grenades and bean-bag rounds were fired toward protesters’ makeshift fortifications.

Youthful demonstrators in yellow and white hard hats, face masks and body armor dug in along Connaught Road and Des Voeux Road, key thoroughfares connecting central and western districts of Hong Kong Island. Some hurled bricks pried from the roadside and other projectiles at officers before retreating in different directions later in the night.

A protester (R) is seen being drag on the ground by another Protester (M) while a member of the police Special Tactical Squad on July 28, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Vernon Yuen

Fresh clashes following the weekend’s “unlawful” assemblies have raised fears of an escalating cycle of violence, as the movement that began in opposition to a now-shelved extradition bill pushes on to pose an unrelenting challenge to the Hong Kong government and its embattled leader.

“Every round of confrontation between the police and the protesters will enhance and exacerbate the mutual hostilities between the two groups, so you have a vicious circle,” said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong.

“Another round of clashes, further hostilities, further enmity, and the situation becomes almost out of control. [Lam] has lost her legitimacy and even lost her effectiveness, and, of course, the whole world is watching,” he told Asia Times.

Lawrence Ma, a barrister and chairman of the Hong Kong Legal Exchange Foundation, believes demonstrators have gone too far by unlawfully assembling and using force against police. “Hardcore rioters emerged at the end of the protest, using other protesters as cover and disguise as if it was a peaceful demonstration,” he said.

“These rioter protesters know very well that attacking the Liaison Office, the representative of the central government in Hong Kong, would convey the message that this is no longer a challenge against the [extradition] bill but a challenge against the foundation of “one country, two systems” establishment,” Ma remarked.

Protesters erect makeshift barricades on Des Voeux Road a half block from police lines, July 28, 2019. Photo: Nile Bowie.

The complete withdrawal of the contentious extradition bill, which would have allowed the transfer of fugitives to mainland China, is, however, one of the demands protesters are calling for, in addition to the formation of an independent inquiry into allegations of excessive police force used against protesters since demonstrations began eight weeks ago.

Lam, whose resignation protesters have called for, has so far refused to accede to any of those demands. Ho-fung Hung, a political-economy professor at Johns Hopkins University, told Asia Times that meeting some of those demands could help deescalate the worst crisis faced by the territory since the 1997 handover that restored Chinese rule over the city.

“The complete withdrawal of the extradition bill and setting up of an independent commission to investigate police action is not that difficult to do. If the government met these two particular demands of the protesters, the political crisis could be immediately alleviated. But the window for this to work is closing fast,” he said.

Cheung Yiu-Leung, a barrister and member of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, shared a similar view on resolving Hong Kong’s political debacle: “I think unless [Lam] steps down so as to open the path for her successor to announce setting up an independent committee, there is really no way out of this deadlock.”

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