"The July Crisis" - For The First Time, Beijing Will Officially Respond To Hong Kong Protests

After stubbornly refusing to admit the increasingly more violent protests in Hong Kong for nearly two months, on Monday China’s top Hong Kong policy office will respond for the first time to escalating civil unrest that has beset the city’s government since June. The Sunday announcement came as anti-government protesters clashed with riot police outside the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong for a second consecutive weekend.

The latest scuffles followed a new twist last Sunday when young protesters targeted the Chinese government's representative office in Hong Kong. A front-page article published in the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, the following day condemned the attack as "a blatant challenge to the central government's authority."  Meanwhile, footage of men in white shirts attacking demonstrators with batons at a railway station in Hong Kong has gone viral, leaving the city in shock.

Fast forward to this weekend when The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) under the State Council, China’s cabinet, will hold a press conference in Beijing to give "its stance and views on Hong Kong’s current situation", the SCMP reported, citing a central government notice.

Riot police fire tear gas at protesters as they head towards the central government’s liaison office in Sai Ying Pun on Sunday.

It will mark the first time the HKMAO has held a press briefing on the city since Britain handed it over to China in 1997. It also suggests the Chinese leadership may have reached a decision on Hong Kong since a wave of mass protests and violent clashes over a now-shelved extradition bill began nearly two months ago. The proposed legislation, which has for now been mothballed, would have allowed the transfer of criminal suspects to jurisdictions including mainland China, where critics say there is no guarantee of a fair trial.

Meanwhile, as the Nikkei reported, with no end in sight to the unrest, Han Zheng, the seventh-ranking Politburo Standing Committee member, journeyed south to Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, adjacent to Hong Kong, to take command while communicating with Hong Kong's top leaders. It was an unusual mission, and Han has made it "at least twice" since June, an informed source said. This suggests how grave the Hong Kong situation is. Some are calling it "the July crisis."

Han Zheng has been sent to Shenzhen to coordinate responses to the Hong Kong protests. 

While Chinese citizens appeared to mostly ignore the escalating events in neighboring Hong Kong for much of the duration of protests, public sentiment on the mainland towards Hong Kong has become noticeably more negative after Beijing strongly condemned protesters who defaced the national emblem and spray-painted anti-Chinese slogans on the liaison office building in Sai Ying Pun a week ago. The liaison office also stepped up security afterwards and installed a protective plastic screen in front of the emblem.

The national emblem on the liaison office building is seen protected by plexiglass on Sunday. Photo: AFP

On Sunday, a clash outside the liaison office – the symbol of Beijing’s official presence in the city – was more muted than the scenes of last weekend when even members of the Triads were observed, with riot police putting up a line of defense about 200 meters from the building and stopping protesters from marching towards it. As night fell, officers again unfurled black banners warning that they would use force, firing tear gas at protesters just before 7pm in an attempt to disperse them. The protesters held their line behind a wall of umbrellas and threw projectiles at the officers.

As the SCMP reports, gradually the riot police gained ground and pushed protesters further away from the liaison office, but the crowd did not disperse until well into the night.  For hours, the two sides clashed along Connaught Road and Des Voeux Road – the two main thoroughfares in the central and western area of Hong Kong Island.

The protesters threw bricks, paint bombs and bottles at police, who responded with tear gas and beanbag rounds. Some protesters set fire to a trolley loaded with cardboard and shoved it towards officers. Others were seen carrying weapons like bows and arrows. Police subdued and arrested at least a dozen protesters. By 10pm, four people were reported to have been injured.

The demonstrators had defied a police ban to march to the liaison office, one of several protests that sprang from a rally at Chater Garden in Central earlier in the day. At one point, spontaneous protests broke out along main roads on Hong Kong Island, stretching more than 6km and running through the city’s financial district Central and shopping area Causeway Bay.

The clashes followed another violent, illegal protest in the northern town of Yuen Long on Saturday, with Police arresting 13 people on Sunday morning for their parts in the Yuen Long protest, including organiser Max Chung Kin-ping. "He insisted on going to Yuen Long … which ended in a series of violent acts. Police will never condone this behaviour," a police spokeswoman said, adding that officers had confiscated weapons including imitation firearms and metal rods.

The chaotic protests brought traffic in one of the world’s busiest districts to a standstill. Dozens of bus services had to be diverted and many shops closed. But during another day of chaos in Hong Kong, the city’s top officials – including Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor – spent Sunday at a youth summer camp at the People’s Liberation Army barracks in rural district Fanling.

Protesters defied a police ban on marching after a rally at Chater Garden in Central. Photo: Felix Wong

In the city center, protesters vowed they would not stop unless their demands were met. Third-year university student Aaron Yam, 20, said a key demand was to launch an “independent and fair inquiry” into police handling of the demonstrations. “The only way out for Hong Kong is to have a fair inquiry into the policing of recent protests,” he said.

Meanwhile, a group of civil servants from various government departments issued a statement saying they would organise a rally to support the protesters on Friday, estimating about 500 people would take part. It will be the first time a group of civil servants has joined the anti-government protests.

And so with all eyes now on Beijing, several mainland observers told the SCMP that the central government was unlikely to announce any measure that could resolve the crisis during its briefing.

“It’s likely the officials will reprimand advocates of Hong Kong independence … as well as express support for the Hong Kong government and its police force,” said Zhang Dinghuai, a Hong Kong policy researcher with Shenzhen University. But analysts expected major policy adjustments were likely to be taking place behind the scenes.