HONG KONG: China’s President Xi Jinping warned yesterday protests in Hong Kong threaten the “one country, two systems” principle governing the semi-autonomous city that has tipped into worsening violence with two dead in a week.
Hong Kong has been ruled by a unique system guaranteeing greater freedoms than on the mainland since its handover from British rule to China in 1997.
But protests, which began against a now-shelved extradition bill to China, have spiralled into wider calls for democracy and police accountability as violence and demonstrations roil the city, challenging Beijing’s authority.
For a fourth straight day, protesters caused widespread disruption with barricades and rallies, as the police drafted in reinforcements and the government denied rumours of an imminent curfew.
The five-month crisis has entered a new phase in recent days with hardcore protesters embarking on a campaign to “blossom everywhere” across the city in a bid to stretch police resources.
The protests, fuelled by fears that the territory’s China-backed government is encroaching on the city’s freedoms, are backlit by fears China may send in its troops to squash the movement.
In rare comments on the violence, Xi repeated Beijing’s unwavering support for the Hong Kong government and police, warning recent actions by protesters have “seriously challenged the baseline principle of ‘one country, two systems’.”
Speaking at a summit in the Brazilian capital of Brasilia, he said “stopping violence and controlling chaos while restoring order is currently Hong Kong’s most urgent task,” in comments reported across Chinese state media.
Hong Kong has been bitterly divided by the increasing protests and violence.
Roads, schools closed
Late Thursday, the Prince of Wales hospital said a 70-year-old man died a day after he was hit by brick during clash between pro- and anti-government protesters.
It was not immediately clear who threw the brick in an incident which was filmed and widely shared on social media.
He was the second person in less than a week to die in protest-linked incidents.
Alex Chow, 22, died on Nov 8 from head injuries sustained during a fall as police skirmished with demonstrators inside a car park.
The unrest has caused multiple injuries but relatively few deaths despite the barrage of police rubber bullets and occasional live fire, as well as petrol bombs and bricks hurled by protesters.
On Thursday, key arterial roads were blocked, many train services suspended and schools closed, while lunchtime rallies took place in the business district as protesters occupied universities.
With the protesters showing no signs of relenting, the nearly 30,000-strong city police force announced it was drafting in 100 prison guards and looking for other reinforcements.
“The ongoing riots … with their massive scale, simultaneous occurrence in various districts and grave severity of violence, make it necessary to strengthen the support for the police’s front-line officers,” a police spokesman said.
While there was no suggestion in China of the military being deployed, one of the most prominent state-run media outlets, the nationalistic Global Times, raised tensions with a report that a curfew was on the cards.
In an English post on its Twitter account, the Global Times said the Hong Kong government was looking to implement a weekend curfew, echoing unsubstantiated rumours online.
However, the Global Times quickly deleted the tweet, and Hong Kong’s government said the rumours were “totally unfounded”.
Protesters are demanding the right to freely elect their leaders, as well as an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality.
Insisting it will not compromise or buckle to the pressure, China has responded with warnings it is prepared to further curb freedoms, and that it wants tougher security measures in Hong Kong.
Fight for freedom
But protesters have repeatedly shown they won’t be intimidated.
On Thursday, Hong Kong fans roundly jeered the Chinese national anthem as the territory prepared to take on Bahrain in a World Cup qualifying match.
Earlier, office workers joined a lunchtime rally in the city’s financial hub shouting “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.”
“A lot of young people have been hurt,” a legal worker who only gave her surname as Chan told AFP.
“They have sacrificed too much for us, so Hong Kongers must come out.”
Violence has intensified from both sides this week.
In a Facebook post, police accused “rioters” of shooting “arrows at several police officers” near Polytechnic University, where clashes have occurred this week.
At the university, protesters bedded in overnight, building brick walls and barricades with cement and mortar, preparing for an expected police advance.
“I’m looking forward to the police coming,” said a black-clad protester who gave his name as Ah Fai.
“We’re not causing the problems the troubles stem from the government.”