BEIJING: China warned Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters on Tuesday (Aug 6) that "those who play with fire will perish by it", a day after the most widespread unrest of the two-month crisis.
In its harshest warning yet, Beijing said the immense strength of the central government should not be underestimated, while police in the semi-autonomous city announced they had arrested almost 150 people in connection with Monday's violence.
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The global financial center has been plunged into chaos by weeks of protests triggered by opposition to a planned law that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. The protests have since evolved into a wider movement for democratic reform and the protection of freedoms.
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On Monday, the city was brought to an unprecedented standstill by a general strike that disrupted train services and flights. The protests surpassed earlier shows of dissent in scale and intensity, as demonstrators fanned out across several districts.
At a press briefing in Beijing, Yang Guang, spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council, said the "radical protests ... have severely impacted Hong Kong's prosperity and stability, pushing it into a dangerous abyss".
Yang said the government still "firmly supports" both the Hong Kong Police Force - who have been criticised for their handling of the protests - and Carrie Lam, the city's pro-Beijing leader who protesters want to resign.
"We would like to make it clear to the very small group of unscrupulous and violent criminals and the dirty forces behind them: Those who play with fire will perish by it," 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."
In the latest clashes, on Tuesday night police fired tear gas at protesters and residents who had gathered outside a police station in the neighborhood of Sham Shui Po after the arrest of a student.
Police told reporters the student was arrested for possession of offensive weapons after officers found him carrying 10 18-centimetre-long (seven-inch) laser pointers in a plastic bag.
Student unions said the police were "fabricating a charge" and accused "the Carrie Lam regime and its lackeys" of "attempting to silence the opposing voices".
Police said 148 people were arrested during running battles with protesters on Monday as the city buckled under a general strike followed by clashes at more than a dozen locations in the former British colony.
Police stations were a particular target, with protesters hurling stones, eggs and bottles, and using giant improvised slingshots to catapult bricks over walls.
An apartment complex that houses police officers and their families also came under attack.
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CONCERN IN THE CAPITAL
Superintendent John Tse told reporters that police fired about 800 tear gas rounds - almost as many as the 1,000 rounds they said they had fired throughout the last two months.
In Beijing, the press conference held by China's cabinet-level State Council was the second about the unrest in as many weeks, highlighting concern in the capital.
The clashes have piled pressure on Chinese President Xi Jinping, and led to speculation that Beijing might be forced to intervene in some capacity, even militarily.
Yang, however, 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", and of restoring order and stability.
The protests on Monday paralysed the subway system during morning peak hour, led many shops to close and delayed scores of international flights.
Lam warned the city was nearing a "very dangerous situation" as she framed the protests as a challenge to China's sovereignty.
Three masked youngsters from the largely leaderless movement took the unusual step on Tuesday of holding a press conference to demand democracy, liberty and equality, and condemn the city's pro-Beijing leaders.
Dressed in the movement's signature yellow construction helmets and hiding their identities with face masks, the two young men and one woman billed their gathering as a civilian press conference "by the people, for the people".
"We call on the government to return the power back to the people and to address the demands of Hong Kong citizens," they said.
The democratic call received backing from powerful US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"The Legislative Council must finally take long-overdue measures to meet the legitimate democratic aspirations of the Hong Kong people," Pelosi said late Monday.
She reiterated a call for Washington to suspend sales of munitions and crowd control gear to Hong Kong's police.