Hong Kong’s ongoing protests are the city’s biggest crisis in more than two decades of Chinese rule, a top Beijing official said Tuesday, following a weekend of violent clashes between protesters and police.
In a meeting with Hong Kong business leaders in the Chinese capital, Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged them to “hold high the banner of patriotism” and work to help Hong Kong’s government in ending the violence. He added that the central government was confident the city would overcome its current difficulties, according to reports in Chinese state media.
His comments came after Sunday saw one of the most violent nights in the now three months of anti-government protests: A police officer fired his gun in the air as a warning to protesters who threatened to overwhelm him and his colleagues, and authorities deployed water cannon for the first time as protesters threw petrol bombs and bricks at police lines.
On Sunday, commentary in Chinese state media appeared to signal Beijing was losing patience with protesters. The official news agency Xinhua said the central government had the “authority” and “responsibility” to intervene and prevent riots in Hong Kong – reiterating comments made by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who oversaw Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
While reiterating that effective negotiations cannot occur while violence is ongoing, the city’s government this week made vague gestures towards reconciliation. On Monday, beleaguered Chief Executive Carrie Lam met with a panel of young people as part of “starting a dialogue” to work to end the unrest, now in its twelfth week.
There remains little hope for full scale talks, however, after Lam indicated she has no intention of addressing any of the five demands put forward by protesters for weeks. They include the withdrawal of the now-suspended extradition bill that kicked off the whole crisis, an inquiry into police brutality and full universal suffrage for electing the city’s legislature and leader.
“In the last two months or so, the government has repeatedly given a reply to the demands from different people,” Lam said Tuesday. “It is not a question of not responding, it is a question of not accepting those demands.”
She again reiterated her government’s line that the suspension of the extradition bill – widely derided as insufficient and too late by protesters – should be enough to end the unrest.
“If the bill was the cause of all these disruptions, that has been stopped over two months ago,” Lam said. “So we have to ask ourselves, the continued resort to violence and protests and harassment – what are we going to do? If we continue to tolerate, accommodate and accept demands because of those protests, that will be a very inappropriate and unacceptable response from the government.”
Protesters have repeatedly stated that their demands are clear and that they have no intention of talking if Lam’s government will not meet at least some of them. Many have also raised the potential of arrest as a reason for not talking to Lam, fearing that anyone who puts themselves forward as a spokesperson for the leaderless movement could face prosecution later.
Critics have also pointed to Lam’s ongoing refusal to meet with opposition lawmakers, who make up around 35% of the city’s semi-democratic legislature, as a reason to be skeptical about any future talks.
Pressure is growing on Lam to find some way out of the crisis, which has begun to severely impact the city’s economy.
Working towards a solution
A senior pro-government lawmaker who has been advising Lam, and requested anonymity to speak about ongoing discussions, said many legislators were “frustrated” that the government has missed multiple opportunities to defuse the crisis and had handled the situation “poorly.”
The lawmaker said they had urged the government to answer “at least half of the demands” put forward in the past 12 weeks, including a full withdrawal of the extradition bill which kickstarted the crisis and an independent investigation into allegations of police brutality.
There needed to be “deep rooted reforms” in the wake of the protests, the lawmaker said, which had exposed major dissatisfaction and anger within Hong Kong society beyond initial alarm at the extradition bill.
Beijing has consistently stated its support for Lam’s government and her handling of the crisis. In an editorial following the Chief Executive’s comments Tuesday, the state-run China Daily voiced approval for her hardline posture, while warning that the gap between Lam’s position and that of the protesters “appears to be unbridgeable.”
“Her administration will by no means swallow the pills the demonstrators prescribe, as it will directly shake the foundation of the ‘one country, two systems’ framework and threaten China’s sovereignty over the city,” the paper said.
This weekend’s violence followed widespread frustration at Lam’s lackluster response to yet another peaceful mass demonstration which attracted hundreds of thousands of people on August 18, the first tear gas free protest in weeks.
In her remarks Tuesday, Lam said that the violence would not derail talks, however.
“I am saying that, yes, we have to say no to violence,” she said. “We want to put an end to the chaotic situation in Hong Kong through law enforcement and so on. At the same time, we will not give up on building a platform for dialogue.”
Caspar Wong, a former president of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Student Union who was in the Monday meeting with Lam, praised it as “quite an open dialogue atmosphere.”
He said participants were critical of Lam and her administration, and in her closing remarks Lam “said she clearly accepted all the comments.”
“As a starting point it was quite a useful meeting,” he said, adding that he recommended “that they cannot avoid the five demands” and should work on meeting protesters in the middle, as well as launching a “reconciliation committee” to investigate the protests and allegations of violence on both sides.