China has said the anti-government protests in Hong Kong have become a “serious challenge to the rule of law”, reiterating its support for the financial hub’s leader and police in the wake of another day of street clashes.
The semi-autonomous territory has been rocked by demonstrations over the past two months that began over changes to extradition laws but have since grown into a wider movement against the Beijing-backed government and alleged police brutality.
On Sunday, police repeatedly fired rubber bullets and tear gas to drive back protesters blocking Hong Kong streets with signs and umbrellas.
In rare public comments on Monday, a spokesman for Beijing’s top office on Hong Kong policy called on people in the territory “to unequivocally oppose and boycott violence”.
“The recent developments, especially the acts of violence by a small number of radical elements, have seriously undermined the broad interests of Hong Kong for prosperity and stability,” said Yang Guang, of China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council.
“They pose a serious challenge to the rule of law and public order in Hong Kong, and to the life and property of Hong Kong residents. They’ve also crossed the red line of the principle of ‘one country, two systems’ and by no means should be tolerated.”
Yang said Hong Kong’s top priority was to “punish violent and unlawful acts”, adding that some Western politicians were stirring unrest in hopes of creating difficulties that would impede China’s development. He did not name any individuals or countries.
The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” formula, which allows its people freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including the liberty to protest and an independent judiciary.
Beijing denies interfering in Hong Kong affairs, but many residents worry about what they see as an erosion of those freedoms and a relentless march towards mainland control.
The protests, some of which drew millions of people, began when the Hong Kong government introduced a controversial bill that would have allowed the extradition of people to mainland China for trial. The territory’s leader Carrie Lam has since called the bill “dead” but has refused to officially retract it.
The demonstrators are demanding, among other things, direct elections for the semi-autonomous Chinese territory’s leader, Lam’s resignation, and an investigation into police use of force to quell the protest movement.
Responding to Yang’s comments on Monday, the main group behind the pro-democracy mass protests, the Civil Human Rights Front, said the Chinese government was not serious about solving the political crisis.
“The state council has the right to appoint and dismiss the chief executive, and the state council has just refused to do so,” the group’s Bonnie Leung said.
“That means that, of course, we are very disappointed and also
it means that the state council refuses to acknowledge what is happening in Hong Kong, and what is the root cause of the whole extradition bill campaign and what the Hong Kong people need.”
Reporting from Hong Kong, Al Jazeera’s Sarah Clarke said, that with more protests planned this week, “anti-riot vehicles may be deployed” as well as “water cannons and liquid dye to make it easier to identify and arrest protesters”.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, pro-democracy legislator Fernando Cheung said: “It is a massive disconnect and unrest as a result of poor governance. Unfortunately, it is heading towards escalation, violence and I am looking at possible casualties or even fatalities.”
The news comes after a weekend of protests and confrontations between the police and protesters which ended around midnight on Sunday night.
Police fired rubber-coated rounds and volleys of tear gas after thousands of pro-democracy protesters gathered near China’s main representative office as authorities appealed to people to stay indoors with their windows shut.
Police pushed demonstrators back and away from the Chinese government’s liaison office and a police station.
Demonstrators fought back with bricks, rudimentary weapons, and even sheets of glass as baton-wielding riot police waded into crowds in some of the most sustained and violent clashes seen during seven weeks of protest.