China yesterday warned Hong Kong protesters that “those who play with fire will perish by it,” adding that the immense strength of the central government should not be underestimated.
The comments represent one of the strongest-worded warnings yet from the central government over protests in the semi-autonomous territory, which has been rocked by weeks of clashes.
At a press briefing in Beijing, Yang Guang (楊光), spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said that the “radical protests ... have severely impacted Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, pushing it into a dangerous abyss.”
The protests were triggered by opposition to a planned law that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, but have evolved into a wider movement for democratic reform and the protection of freedoms.
Yang said the government still “firmly supports” the Hong Kong police force — who have been criticized for their handling of the protests — and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥).
In a strong warning aimed at the “criminals” behind the unrest, Yang 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.”
However, Yang seemed to downplay any idea of mainland police or military helping with law enforcement, saying the Hong Kong government was “fully capable of punishing the violent crime in accordance with the law, restore order to society, and restore stability to society.”
The protests on Monday paralyzed the subway system during morning peak hour, led many shops to close and delayed scores of international flights.
Meanwhile, a group of activists dressed in the Hong Kong protest uniform of masks and hard hats yesterday held a widely televised news conference and urged Lam to “return power to the people.”
The three activists, who declined to give their real names, held the news conference in the Mong Kok neighborhood of Hong Kong.
Representatives of the protest movement have not held any news conferences since the demonstrations began two months ago.
“We call on the government to return the power back to the people and to address the demands of Hong Kong citizens,” one activist said during the news conference shown on several television channels in Hong Kong.
The news conference reflected the faceless and leaderless ethos of the protests, partly an effort by participants to avoid prosecution by the authorities.
One of the activists said that the group “was not affiliated with any political party or organization leading the movement.”
However, the group said their initiative was prompted by Lam’s announcement that the police would hold daily news conferences. The aim was to provide a platform for Hong Kong citizens to voice dissatisfaction with the government and the police, they said.
Hong Kong’s government had failed to take responsibility for the outcry gripping the city, one activist said.
He urged the government to respond to the protesters’ demands: a complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, a halt to descriptions of the protests as “rioting”; a waiver of charges against those arrested; an independent inquiry and resumption of political reform.
In related news, Hong Kong police said 148 people were arrested during running battles with protesters on Monday, the largest daily toll since huge pro-democracy protests started two months ago.
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