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China Warns Hong Kong Protesters Not to ‘Take Restraint for Weakness’

HONG KONG — An official in Beijing on Tuesday issued China’s sternest denunciation yet of the demonstrations in Hong Kong, saying they had “exceeded the scope of free assembly” and warning that the semiautonomous city would not be allowed to descend into chaos.

“I want to warn all the criminals to not wrongly judge the situation and take restraint for weakness,” said Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. He warned against underestimating China’s “firm resolve and strength to safeguard the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.”

But Mr. Yang offered little in the way of concrete measures to resolve the political crisis, calling for more patriotic education and encouraging residents to confront protesters. “We need to stand up to protect our wonderful homeland,” he said.

VideoCarrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has earned a reputation as a tenacious politician in her nearly 40 years in government. But her close ties with China’s central leadership have made her a divisive figure at home.CreditCreditJerome Favre/EPA, via Shutterstock

The comments came a day after protesters in Hong Kong carried out their most widespread civil disobedience in weeks of demonstrations, blocking trains and roads and urging workers to strike. Air travel was also snarled, with more than 200 flights canceled after 2,300 civil aviation workers stayed home, according to an estimate by union officials.

Mr. Yang denounced the tactics of protesters who have surrounded police stations, throwing bricks and lighting fires, as “extreme violence that is shocking to see.”

He said, “The central government will never allow any violent attempt to push Hong Kong into a dangerous situation.”

ImageCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Protesters gathered at more than a half dozen sites across Hong Kong on Monday, and the police arrested 148 people and fired 800 canisters of tear gas. The tear gas used on Monday alone came close to the 1,000 rounds that the police had used over the previous eight weeks.

Joshua Wong, a leader of the 2014 Umbrella movement and a prominent pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong, said Mr. Yang’s comments were an attempt to scare the people of the city into silence.

“Beijing does not rule Hong Kong by law, they just rule by tear gas,” he said.

The protests this summer began over a proposal that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. The government suspended that legislation in mid-June, but the protests have continued, demanding that the government fully withdraw the bill. The protesters are also angry about other issues, including allegations of police brutality and the stalled expansion of direct elections in Hong Kong.

Protesters who have clashed with the police have argued that more confrontational methods became necessary after the government rejected demands made in earlier, peaceful marches, one of which was joined by as many as two million people.

Mr. Yang also warned protesters to not challenge China’s sovereignty, denouncing those who defaced the Chinese government’s representative office in Hong Kong last month and threw Chinese flags into Victoria Harbor in recent days. He criticized protesters’ use of a slogan from an imprisoned activist who once advocated Hong Kong’s independence: “Liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times.”

Last week, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office expressed its support for Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong chief executive, and the police, but they offered little new to resolve the political crisis. It was rare for the office to hold a news conference, and even rarer for it to hold another just a week later, an indication of the Chinese leadership’s struggle to respond to the increasingly fraught conflict in Hong Kong.

Mr. Yang reiterated on Tuesday that China backed Mrs. Lam and the police, and he said there should be no leniency in prosecuting violent crimes.

ImageCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

“These rioters are extremely rampant and deranged,” he said. “A blow from the sword of law is waiting for them in the future.”

Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to China in 1997, and it operates under a model called “one country, two systems,” which allows the city to maintain its own political and legal systems and gives residents a far greater degree of civil liberties than is seen in mainland China.

The central government is responsible for Hong Kong’s national defense and foreign relations. But many in Hong Kong fear Beijing is wielding greater influence over the city, slowly eroding its freedoms.

A spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense hinted last month that the People’s Liberation Army could be called on to maintain order in Hong Kong. The military has a garrison of 6,000 to 10,000 soldiers in Hong Kong, but local officials have repeatedly denied rumors that they have been preparing to help quell demonstrations.

Last week, the Hong Kong garrison released a video showing its troops training to confront protesters. And images have been released of large groups of mainland police officers holding drills in preparation for the Oct. 1 celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Those images have also fueled unsubstantiated rumors about the possible intervention of Chinese forces.

Asked if he could rule out an intervention by the Chinese military, Mr. Yang said China would “never allow a challenge to the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ to go unpunished and will never allow any turbulence that will threaten national unity.”

Mrs. Lam warned on Monday of a crisis of “security and safety” and said “a series of extremely violent acts” was “pushing Hong Kong into very precarious circumstances.”

A group of protesters met with reporters on Tuesday to challenge the government’s portrayal of them, accusing Mrs. Lam and other top officials of dodging responsibility for the crisis.


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