HONG KONG • Hong Kong is facing its "most severe situation" since its handover from British rule in 1997 following weeks of demonstrations, and the central government is considering what measures to take next, the head of China's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said yesterday.
Mr Zhang Xiaoming, one of the most senior Chinese officials overseeing Hong Kong affairs, was speaking at a seminar in the mainland city of Shenzhen just across the border from the Asian financial hub, which has been racked by daily protests against the administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Those protests are getting increasingly violent and having "an increasingly broad impact on society", Mr Zhang told the 500 attendees, who included members of the Hong Kong and central government legislative and advisory bodies. "It can be said that Hong Kong is facing the most severe situation it has faced since the handover."
He added that officials in Beijing were highly concerned and studying the situation to make a determination and decide on measures to be taken.
Hong Kong was returned to China under the framework of "one country, two systems", which promised the city political, civil and economic freedoms not allowed under Communist Party rule on the mainland.
However, many Hong Kong residents feel that Beijing has been increasingly encroaching on their freedoms. The protests were set off by a proposed extradition Bill that, if passed, would have allowed some criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China, where critics say they could face unfair trials.
China so far has not visibly intervened in the situation. But in editorials and statements from officials, it has condemned the demonstrators and protest organisers as criminals, clowns and "violent radicals", and alleged that they have been inflamed by politicians from the United States, Taiwan and elsewhere.
Speculation that the military could be deployed grew after Chinese officials pointed to an article in Hong Kong law that allows troops already stationed in the city to help with "public order maintenance" at the Hong Kong government's request.
The Hong Kong authorities have said they do not anticipate any need to bring in troops or police from China to help impose order.
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 with it.
MR YANG GUANG, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, who also said that it is only a matter of time before those behind the protests are punished.
Mrs Lam yesterday attended the opening of an exhibition marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the communist state.
"Over recent months, conditions in Hong Kong society have been extremely unstable," she said in remarks distributed by her office.
"The special administrative region government will certainly join with all of you to deal with it calmly, restore social order, safeguard rule of law and cherish Hong Kong, cherish 'one country, two systems', and cherish our home."
Another Chinese official said on Tuesday that it would be "only a matter of time" before those behind the protests are punished, further indicating that Beijing would take a hard line against the demonstrators and that it has no plans to negotiate over their demands for political reforms.
Mr Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said: "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 with it."