Beijing warns those behind Hong Kong protests not to play with fire

Protesters cast a finger shadow featuring a dog which represents a policeman on the Hong Kong Space Museum using laser pointers during a rally to demonstrate against the arrests of people caught in possession of laser pointers that police classified as offensive weapons because of their ability to harm the eyes in Hong Kong on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. Hong Kong is facing its "most severe situation" since its handover from British rule in 1997 following weeks of demonstrations and the central government is considering what measures to take next, the head of Beijing's Cabinet office responsible for the territory said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

BEIJING (The Straits Times/ANN) — The current chaos that has enveloped Hong Kong is largely the work of “behind-the-scenes masterminds” that have instigated, directed and funded violent protests, said Beijing yesterday as it attempted to provide evidence of foreign interference.

Issuing its sternest warning yet, it told the “violent criminals” and “dirty forces” driving them: Play with fire and perish with it.

In a second news conference in just over a week, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office described protests in the past few days as “shocking” and said they have gone beyond the freedoms of assembly and demonstration.

“Don’t ever misjudge the situation and mistake our restraint for weakness. Don’t ever underestimate the firm resolve and the immense strength of the central government and the people of the whole country to maintain Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability and safeguard the fundamental interests of the nation,” said spokesman Yang Guang to a select group of mostly foreign and Hong Kong journalists.

The Chinese territory has been rocked by protests for the past two months over a controversial extradition Bill which has since been suspended.

Despite the withdrawal, tensions have escalated and turned violent at times as protesters demanded the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and an independent inquiry into police action, among other things.

Beijing yesterday made clear that it has “unswerving support” for Mrs Lam as well as her government to uphold law and order and bring criminals to justice.

“The opposition’s attempt to force Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resign is doomed to fail,” said Mr Yang.

He attributed the turmoil now gripping Hong Kong to a small number of “violent radicals” at the front, “some kind-hearted citizens who have been misguided and coerced to join” in the middle, and “anti-China forces” agitating in the background.

“They have openly and brazenly emboldened violent radicals, and overtly and covertly coordinated, directed and funded protests,” he said.

China has repeatedly accused the United States of being the “black hand” behind the Hong Kong civil disobedience movement.

Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, a key supporter of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Democratic Party, last month met US Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the White House, drawing the ire of Beijing.

Hong Kong democracy advocate Martin Lee also led a delegation to Washington to meet Mr Pompeo.

“Whoever participated in violent and criminal activities would be held accountable in accordance with the law, including the behind-the-scenes masterminds, organisers and directors,” warned Mr Yang.

Associate Professor Alfred Wu of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said China’s strategy of blaming foreign intervention for its problems is a recurring one, which was also used by the Hong Kong government during the Occupy Central movement in 2014.

“(Then Chief Executive) Leung Chun Ying said he had evidence of foreign forces at work, but there has never been any solid evidence presented,” said Prof Wu.

“The notion of foreign influence is a matter of definition. US lawmakers have met the pro-government camp too.”

While analysts believe Beijing will not send in the troops to restore order, the Chinese government has sent signals that the military option is on the table with a police anti-riot drill yesterday, purportedly in preparation of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, and an anti-riot exercise last week by the Hong Kong garrison soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army.

“The PLA is a strong force and will defend every inch of its sacred territory,” Mr Yang told reporters yesterday, adding that the Chinese government will never allow its “one country, two systems” principle to be challenged.

The authorities have said there are provisions within the law that allow the military to intervene if necessary.

By Tan Dawn Wei