China’s central state propaganda organ has issued a stern warning toward protesters in Hong Kong, a new indication that Beijing is losing patience with demonstrations in the city that once again turned violent this weekend.
Protesters are attempting to “kidnap Hong Kong,” the Xinhua News Agency wrote in an online commentary published Sunday night.
“The end is coming for those attempting to disrupt Hong Kong and antagonize China,” the commentary said, warning that “extremely violent actions“ have “broken the bottom line of the rule of law, morality and basic humanity.”
The sharp rebuke by a central news organization reminded some of commentary published ahead of the June 4 military crackdown on Tiananmen Square in 1989, and comes after Chinese media have in recent weeks broadcast images of paramilitary exercises in Shenzhen, the mainland city adjacent to Hong Kong.
“Such open condemnation reminds me of things that happened 30 years ago. I mean the June 4 incident,” Bao Tong, an outspoken critic of the government who was a senior Communist Party official at the time, told The Globe and Mail. “I can’t say that the same thing will happen again,” he added, but the rhetorical parallels “just make me naturally draw such a connection.”
China’s Foreign Ministry says Beijing continues to have faith in Hong Kong authorities to resolve a set of protests that have crippled parts of the city for 13 weekends. The central government supports Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam “to take actions in accordance with the law,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Monday. “The Chinese central government also supports Hong Kong police in taking actions to curb the violence and stop the riots based on legal requirements.”
But such official shows of support come against darkening warnings that Beijing is preparing to move more decisively against pro-democracy demonstrations, after weeks of violence that have pitted protesters tossing Molotov cocktails and smashing transportation infrastructure against riot police, who have responded with tear gas, baton attacks and volleys of non-lethal projectiles.
Ms. Lam told a gathering last week that there was no plan by Beijing to deploy People’s Liberation Army Troops in Hong Kong. But she also said in the audio recording heard by Reuters that she had “very limited” options to resolve the crisis because Beijing viewed the matter as one of national security and sovereignty.
Some 1,117 people have now been arrested for participation in protests, which included blocking subway stations on Monday, while thousands of students boycotted the start of classes. A city-wide strike has been called for Tuesday.
The unrest has been met with increasingly fierce condemnation from people aligned with Beijing. In a recent post to Facebook, former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying accused protesters of pushing for “regime change” and full autonomy from China. “In that case, Hong Kong would essentially become a Western puppet that is totally independent from China,” he wrote.
The next step after that, would involve turning Hong Kong into a “base for subversion,” he warned, to foment unrest and political fracturing in mainland China. To counter that, he wrote, “we must mobilize all conventional and unconventional forces within and outside the Hong Kong system,” with an aim “to destroy them completely.”
Mr. Leung did not respond to a request for comment. Protesters have demanded the full withdrawal of a proposed extradition bill, an independent investigation into police conduct, and greater democratic freedoms through universal suffrage. Many have clearly stated that they do not seek independence.
But Mr. Leung’s analysis fits with the Xinhua commentary, which warned that the city’s “rioters” seek to take over the Hong Kong government and destroy the “one country, two systems” principle that governs its autonomy before “spreading the ‘colour revolution’ into the Chinese mainland.”
The Xinhua language was reminiscent of that used by the state-run People’s Daily on April 26, 1989, when it published a front-page editorial directly accusing demonstrators, some of whom had gathered at Tiananmen Square, of seeking to undermine Communist Party leadership. “Their purpose was to sow dissension among the people, plunge the whole country into chaos and sabotage the political situation of stability and unity,” the editorial warned. “This is a planned conspiracy and a disturbance.”
The Sunday Xinhua commentary, by contrast, was distributed online, giving it less official weight than a front-page editorial. Protests in distant Hong Kong also pose a substantially less immediate threat to Communist Party leadership than demonstrations in the heart of the capital – and many other cities – three decades ago.
Still, “the tone of language is the same as the People’s Daily editorials before and after the massacre,” said Rose Tang, an activist who was a student leader during the Tiananmen protests.
“In 1989, we didn’t realize they’d be killing us, but older generations who had been through the Anti-Rightist Campaign and the Cultural Revolution, smelled murders straight away. They were telling us: ’They’ve defined the movement. They’ve made up their mind.’”
The Xinhua language, similarly, is “very menacing and bloody. I can smell the blood from the words,” Ms. Tang said.
The Sunday commentary “will undoubtedly allow the police and their supporters to rationalize any possible further escalations of violence,” said Michael Wong, one of the front-line protesters who has clashed with police in Hong Kong. “But it will not have much impact on the demonstrators,” he said.
Mr. Bao, meanwhile, rejected the state media characterization of protesters like Mr. Wong.
“What’s happening in Hong Kong is just an expression of people’s will,” he said. “Seeing such expression as an attempt to overthrow a government is not sensible, and doesn’t fit with the definition of a civilized country, either. “
Mr. Bao, who in 1989 was a senior adviser to Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang – and was later imprisoned for his supportive stance toward Tiananmen protesters – declined to speculate on what circumstances could lead to Beijing mobilizing armed forces to Hong Kong.
But, he said, “no matter if it’s the People’s Liberation Army or the People’s Armed Police, their major task is to protect their country and people, not to destroy their country or kill their people. That’s all I can say.”