China’s government has warned Hong Kong protesters that “those who play with fire will perish by it” after mass demonstrations and protests paralyzed the city on Monday.
The uncompromising message came just 24 hours after the day of action descended into violence with small groups attacking police stations and even throwing petrol bombs into a vehicle compound.
At a media briefing in Beijing, Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO) of the State Council, made it clear that President Xi Jinping’s administration was running out of patience.
“[The] radical protests … have severely impacted Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, pushing it into a dangerous abyss,” he said.
“Don’t ever misjudge the situation and mistake our restraint for weakness … Don’t ever underestimate the firm resolve and immense strength of the central government,” Yang added.
He went on to accuse sections of the protest movement as “criminals,” warning that “radical and violent people” and those “driving them from behind” would be punished according to the law. Yang then went on to praise the police force and Carrie Lam, the city’s pro-Beijing leader.
During the past two months, Hong Kong has been thrust into the global spotlight after millions of people took to the streets to oppose a planned law that would have allowed extradition to mainland China.
After Lam agreed to shelve the legislation, the demonstrations morphed into a wider movement for democratic reform in what is considered a Special Administrative Region by the mainland’s Communist Party government.
At times, violence has broken out between hardcore protesters and the police, as well as pro-Beijing vigilante groups with perceived links to Triad gangs.
“The protests in Hong Kong are a serious loss of face for Beijing, and presents a key political and strategic dilemma for the Chinese authorities – do we intervene, when, and how,” Michael Raska, an assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told AFP.
Still, the protesters have shown no sign of winding down their campaign for greater political freedom.
On Tuesday, a press conference was called by three masked activists to demand democracy, liberty and equality.
Dressed in the movement’s signature yellow construction helmets and hiding their identities, they billed the media conference as “by the people, for the people.”
“We call on the government to return the power back to the people and to address the demands of Hong Kong citizens,” they said.
Their briefing came after another night of violence. Police confirmed that they fired 800 tear gas canisters in a single day to suppress the protests in different districts in Hong Kong. They also used 140 rubber bullets and fired 20 sponge bullets, the police spokesperson stated on Tuesday. Seven policemen were injured while 148 protesters were arrested.
On Tuesday, HKMAO in a Beijing media conference praised the Hong Kong police for their efforts in clearance actions and reiterated its stance to support Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.
HKMAO spokesperson Yang said protesters should not underestimate the strength and determination of the central government to maintain Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability. He refused to directly answer whether Beijing will send in the People Liberation’s Army troops to Hong Kong. He said Hong Kong police has the ability to manage the situation.
Yang added that those who called for “Recover Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” were challenging China’s sovereignty in Hong Kong. He said PLA troops will ensure the safety of every inch of China’s territory.
On Monday, anti-extradition protesters held rallies in seven districts across Hong Kong. They also organized a citywide strike, which resulted in the cancellation of more than 200 flights. MTR services were suspended for the whole morning as protesters launched a non-cooperation campaign to prevent train doors from closing.
About 350,000 people joined the strike on Monday, according to an estimate by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.
After Chief Executive Lam’s mid-morning speech against recent protests, protesters surrounded police stations and blocked key roads and cross-harbor tunnels. Protesters threw bricks and eggs at police stations while others burned debris. Riot police were deployed to crackdown on protesters.
By mid-afternoon, thousands of protesters occupied Harcourt Road near government headquarters in Admiralty. Armed police remained behind large water barricades during the afternoon and fired multiple volleys of tear gas canisters at protesters.
At one point, a dozen police engaged in a verbal fight with protesters on a bridge connecting the Admiralty MTR station and Tamar Park.
Video showed officers defending their actions after a masked protester strongly criticized them. One of the officers shouted: “I only know you are HK rioters!” while another said no one supported the strike except “rioters.” A commander ordered the squad to move back 10 meters to end the quarrel.
A police spokesperson said Tuesday it was natural that some officers, together with many Hong Kong people, were becoming emotional due to the recent political tension. He said police will closely monitor the mental state of frontline officers.
On Tuesday, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung urged the public to be understanding if police did not perform their duties perfectly. He said officers were working under huge pressure over the last two months. Cheung said the Independent Police Complaints Council will investigate and monitor police actions.