Chinese official says Hong Kong facing biggest crisis since 1997

Chinese official says Hong Kong facing biggest crisis since 1997

Protesters react after tear gas was fired by the police during a demonstration in support of the ci
Protesters react after tear gas was fired by the police during a demonstration in support of the city-wide strike and to call for democratic reforms at Tai Po residential area in Hong Kong, China, on Aug 5, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Tyrone Siu)

HONG KONG: Hong Kong is facing its worst crisis since it returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, the head of China's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office said on Wednesday (Aug 7), as more protests were set to rock the Asian financial hub.

The city has faced months of sometimes violent protests that began with opposition to a now-suspended extradition law and which have evolved into a direct challenge to the government of embattled leader Carrie Lam.

READ: China warns Hong Kong protesters: 'Those who play with fire will perish by it'

"Hong Kong's crisis ... has continued for 60 days, and is getting worse and worse," Zhang Xiaoming, one of the most senior Chinese officials overseeing Hong Kong affairs, said during a meeting in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

"Violent activities are intensifying and the impact on society is spreading wider. It can be said that Hong Kong is now facing the most severe situation since its handover," he said.

Zhang was holding a forum that included Hong Kong delegates to China's parliament, the National People's Congress and China's main consultative body, the CPPCC, to discuss the political crisis in the territory. No opposition democratic figures or protest representatives were invited. 

Speaking after the meeting, several attendees said Zhang cited speeches by former Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping in 1984 and 1987 in which he said if "turmoil" occurs in Hong Kong, "the central government must intervene".

No specific mention, however, was made of deploying the People's Liberation Army (PLA), which has a garrison in Hong Kong, to quell the unrest, with Zhang cited as saying Beijing remained confident in the Hong Kong government and local police.

READ: Commentary: Hong Kong has become less of a financial centre prize for China

Elsie Leung, a former justice secretary, said she felt that even if the PLA were deployed it would not conflict with Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" by which it has been governed since 1997. "One country, two systems would continue," she said.

The protests, during which millions of people have taken to the streets, began in opposition to an extradition law that would have allowed suspects to be tried in mainland courts controlled by the Communist Party.

Fuelled by many residents' fears of eroding freedoms under the tightening Communist Party control, the protests now pose the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012.

HONG KONG LAWYERS MARCH

Several thousand Hong Kong lawyers, dressed in black, marched in silence on Wednesday to call on the government to safeguard the independence of the city's department of justice.

A female lawyer who declined to be named said she was marching "to make sure the government knows that within the legal sector, we will not allow judicial independence to be compromised by politics or pressure from the Chinese government".

The city's lawyers fear the justice department's prosecutions of arrested protesters are taking on an increasingly political with more than 500 arrests, many charged with rioting, an offence that carries a 10-year jail term.

A group of unidentified government prosecutors published an open letter last week accusing Secretary of Justice Teresa Cheng of putting politics above legal principles.

"All we want is justice and all we want is consistency," said prominent lawyer Kevin Yam, who also protested. "We don't want to see thugs get away while the best of our youth get prosecuted. We uphold the rule of law and we ask for justice."

Protesters also plan to surround Hong Kong's Revenue Tower on Wednesday.

READ: Key dates as peaceful rallies against extradition Bill turn to violent clashes

READ: Clashes between officers and protesters outside Hong Kong police station

Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in Sham Shui Po, one of the city's poorest districts, late on Tuesday.

"INTERFERENCE"

Hong Kong's mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, states that the city's Department of Justice "shall control criminal prosecutions, free from any interference".

Hong Kong was guaranteed freedoms not granted in mainland China, including an independent judiciary, under a "one country, two systems" formula when Britain handed it back to China in 1997. However, many residents see the extradition bill as part of a relentless march towards mainland control.

Protesters are demanding a complete withdrawal of the bill, an independent inquiry into the crisis, an investigation into what they say is excessive use of force by police, and for Lam to step down.

READ: China reiterates support for Hong Kong's embattled leader

The movement has garnered support from broad swaths of society, with teachers, rights groups, financial industry workers and even civil servants taking to the streets.

In China's sharpest rebuke yet of the protesters, the government warned them on Tuesday not to "play with fire" and called on Hong Kong citizens to protect their homeland.

The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid published by the Communist Party's People's Daily, showed a video on its official Twitter feed of thousands of police officers taking part in an anti-riot training drill in Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.

The video showed officers in helmets and shields clashing with people in black shirts and yellow construction hats, similar to the unofficial uniform of protesters in Hong Kong.

READ: Hong Kong on 'verge of very dangerous situation', says leader Carrie Lam as she refuses to step down

Police have arrested more than 500 people in the protests so far and fired nearly 2,000 rounds of tear gas.

Protesters have also demanded the release of Keith Fong, a student union leader from Baptist University, who was arrested on Tuesday night after being caught buying laser pointers by several plain-clothes police.

Police said in a statement a man was found in possession of offensive weapons. Protesters have often aimed pointers, which are widely available in shops, at police during recent clashes. 

Source: Reuters

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