Hong Kong: China condemns protests as ‘undisguised challenge’ to its rule

Britain urges China not to use unrest in Hong Kong as a ‘pretext for oppression’

July 1st, 2019: Protesters tried to storm Hong Kong's government buildings on the anniversary of the city's return to Chinese rule. Video: Reuters

 

China on Tuesday condemned violent protests in Hong Kong as an “undisguised challenge” to the formula under which the city is ruled, hours after police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters who stormed and trashed the legislature.

A representative of China’s Hong Kong affairs office denounced the demonstrators, who are furious about proposed legislation allowing extraditions to China, and said Beijing supports holding criminals responsible, state media said.

The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including freedom to protest and an independent judiciary.

Monday was the 22nd anniversary of the handover.

Beijing denies interfering, but for many Hong Kong residents, the extradition Bill is the latest step in a relentless march towards mainland control.

“Seriously violating the law, the act tramples the rule of law in Hong Kong, undermines social order and the fundamental interests of Hong Kong, and is an undisguised challenge to the bottom line of ‘one country, two systems’, Xinhua news agency quoted a Hong Kong affairs office spokesman as saying. “We strongly condemn this act.”

Debris including umbrellas, hard hats and water bottles was among the few signs left of the mayhem that had engulfed parts of the city on Monday and overnight after protesters stormed and ransacked the Legislative Council, or mini-parliament.

Protesters shine smartphone lights and hold placards during the annual pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong on Monday. Photographer: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg
Protesters shine smartphone lights and hold placards during the annual pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong on Monday. Photographer: Paul Yeung/Bloomberg

Police cleared roads near the heart of the financial centre, paving the way for business to return to normal.

However, government offices, where protesters smashed computers and spray-painted “anti-extradition” and slurs against the police and government on chamber walls, were closed.

The government’s executive council meeting was due to be held in Government House, officials said, while the legislature would remain closed for the next two weeks.

Britain responds

Britain has urged China not to use unrest in Hong Kong as a “pretext for oppression”.

The strongly worded message came after Chinese officials insisted the UK should “know its place” as protests played out in Hong Kong amid ugly scenes.

UK prime minister Theresa May’s official spokesman told a Westminster briefing: “We are very concerned about the violence we have seen on all sides during the protests.

“We want to see protests conducted in a peaceful manner in accordance with the law.

“We urge the authorities not to use last night’s events as a pretext for oppression, but to address the deep-seated concern by the people of Hong Kong that their basic freedoms are under attack.”

Workers clean up outside the Legislative Council, a day after protesters broke into the building in Hong Kong. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters
Workers clean up outside the Legislative Council, a day after protesters broke into the building in Hong Kong. Photograph: Jorge Silva/Reuters

Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt insisted there would be “serious consequences” if China failed to honour the terms of the 1984 joint declaration signed with the UK on Hong Kong.

Speaking at hustings for the Tory leadership race, Mr Hunt said: “We expect that legally-binding agreement to be honoured and if it isn’t there will be serious consequences.”

Asked what the consequences would be, Mr Hunt said: “You have to allow me some latitude as Foreign Secretary to make a decision on that when the appropriate time comes.”

UK foreign office minister Sir Alan Duncan condemned violence by protesters but said the UK government “understands the deep-seated concerns that people in Hong Kong have about their rights and freedoms”.

In response to an urgent question in the House of Commons, he told MPs: “Of the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the July 1st march yesterday the vast majority of people did so in a peaceful and lawful manner.

“The UK is fully committed to upholding Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and rights and freedoms under the one county, two systems principle which is guaranteed by the legally binding Joint Declaration of 1984.”

He said the UK government rejects the Chinese government’s assertion that the joint declaration is a “historical document”.

Cleaners clear remaining items and broken glass around the Legislative Council Building on Tuesday. Photograph: Ritchie B Tongo/EPA
Cleaners clear remaining items and broken glass around the Legislative Council Building on Tuesday. Photograph: Ritchie B Tongo/EPA

He added: “By which they mean it is no longer valid and that our rights and obligations under that treaty have ended.

“Our clear view is that the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 obliges the Chinese government to uphold Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and its rights and freedoms. We call on the Chinese government to do so.”

Communist Party control

Millions of people have taken to the streets in the past few weeks to protest against the now-suspended extradition Bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.

Lawyers and rights groups say China’s justice system is marked by torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detention. China has been angered by western criticism of the Bill.

The Bill triggered a backlash against Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, taking in the business, diplomatic and legal communities that fear corrosion of the legal autonomy of Hong Kong and the difficulty of guaranteeing a fair trial in China.

She has suspended the Bill and said it would lapse next year, but protesters want it scrapped altogether and have pressed her to step down.

Protesters in Hong Kong took over the legislature’s main building on Monday, tearing down portraits of legislative leaders and spray painting pro-democracy slogans on the walls of the main chamber. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP
Protesters in Hong Kong took over the legislature’s main building on Monday, tearing down portraits of legislative leaders and spray painting pro-democracy slogans on the walls of the main chamber. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

Censorship

Chinese censors have worked hard to erase or block news of the Hong Kong protests, wary that any large public rallies could inspire protests on the mainland.

Screens went black on the BBC and CNN when they showed related reports in mainland China, as has happened during previous Hong Kong protests. Foreign news channels are only available in luxury hotels and a handful of high-end apartment complexes in China.

State news agency Xinhua wrote an upbeat Chinese-language report about a government-arranged concert in Hong Kong to celebrate the handover anniversary, complete with descriptions of the audience singing the national anthem and how the performers showed their “ardent love of the motherland”.

A state newspaper in China called for “zero tolerance” after the violence in Hong Kong.

“Out of blind arrogance and rage, protesters showed a complete disregard for law and order,” the Global Times, published by the Communist Party’s People’s Daily, said in an editorial.

The protests generated lively discussion on Chinese social media.

“Hong Kong shows that China cannot follow a Western political system. It’s too easy to be manipulated and to bring chaos,” wrote one user of the Twitter-like Weibo.

Another wrote, “When the children don’t listen, their mothers should give them a smacked bottom.”

Beijing-backed Ms Lam called a news conference at 4 am (9pm Monday) to condemn some of the most violent protests to rock the city in decades. – Reuters and PA