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As Hong Kong protests continue, China's response is increasingly ominous

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Protesters with protective gear face riot police in Hong Kong on Sunday.
Protesters with protective gear face riot police in Hong Kong on Sunday.
Kin Cheung | AP

When hundreds of thousands filled Hong Kong's streets on June 9 to protest a controversial extradition bill, the only mainland coverage came from China Daily, an English-language state newspaper geared towards overseas audiences.

It falsely labelled the march as one in support of the bill, which would allow extradition of some criminal defendants in Hong Kong to face trial in China. The state broadcaster, CCTV, kept its coverage to a minimum. China's government was silent.

But two weeks ago, China's top office on Hong Kong finally had something to say. Yang Guang, a spokesperson for the State Council Office for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, acknowledged the protests. He called them "evil and criminal." Since then, Chinese state media have been covering Hong Kong's "turmoil" daily with increasingly hostile rhetoric.

Beijing's sudden reversal shows China's approach to Hong Kong is undergoing a substantial shift, as China's leaders debate how to quell protests whose longevity seemed to take them by surprise.

"Beijing realized at some point that this was not just opposition to one bill or one policy but that it ran much deeper, and it had a long-term challenge on its hands," says Adam Ni, a China specialist at Australia's Macquarie University. "Beijing [now] sees the unfolding crisis as something that is really destabilizing and challenges its rule, its control."

At a recent gathering in Shenzhen, on the border with Hong Kong, more than 500 pro-Beijing Hong Kong officials and businessmen met with China's top official on Hong Kong affairs, Zhang Xiaoming. He likened the protests to a "color revolution," suggesting Beijing now sees the protest as one gunning for regime change.

On Monday night, thousands of protesters occupied Hong Kong's international airport, forcing the cancellation of all incoming and outgoing flights. Beijing's State Council office for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs said shortly after the occupation began that it detected "signs of terrorism" in the protest and warned the situation "had reached a critical juncture."

Tuesday the protesters returned and all outgoing flights were again cancelled.

Along with its increasingly strident rhetoric, Beijing has encouraged conspiracy theories now popular within China that the protests were instigated and funded by the United States. In a second press conference last week, China's office on Hong Kong blamed "external foreign forces" for the protest, citing several meetings U.S. leaders had with Hong Kong pro-democracy advocates in Washington this spring.

The ideas have gained significant support in mainland China: when a prominent international relations commentator dismissed theories of CIA support for the protests as an unfounded conspiracy, he was vilified as a traitor by online bloggers.

Demands met by indifference or hostility

On Hong Kong's streets, protesters are demanding an independent investigation into police brutality; a permanent retraction of the extradition law to China which served as the impetus of the more than three months of protest so far; the resignation of Hong Kong's non-elected leader Carrie Lam; and universal suffrage to choose a new leader.

Beijing has ignored the substance of the protesters' demands or rejected them outright, further enraging demonstrators. And China has thrown its weight behind Hong Kong's embattled leader Carrie Lam, vowing "unflagging support" and reportedly refusing her offer to resign, according to the Financial Times.

Last weekend saw Hong Kong's bloodiest protests yet. Police fired tear gas and rubber bullets into large crowds. Black-clad protesters occupied the city's normally-bustling international airport on Monday to vent their anger at the brutality. Yet in response to demands for a police inquiry, Beijing has repeatedly commended Hong Kong's police force for upholding law and order.

Since protests broke out almost three months ago, Lam has sought support from Hong Kong's multinational businesses and pro-Beijing tycoons.  

At a July meeting with foreign businessmen, "an extremely relaxed" Lam reassured them that her government was working on pro-business incentives and would not accede to protesters' demands, according to a person present who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak publicly.

"She is not understanding compromises are needed in order to stop demonstrations," this person said, "but I guess Beijing can't be seen to be giving into demands."

China celebrates the 70th anniversary of Communist rule on October 1 and its armed forces are preparing for a massive military parade in Beijing. The military activity may have a secondary purpose as an intimidation tactic: to signal a clear threat of military action in Hong Kong.

On Tuesday, the day after protesters temporarily shut down Hong Kong's airport, China's paramilitary forces began drilling in Shenzhen, the mainland city that borders Hong Kong. The week before, twelve thousand Shenzhen police turned out for a highly-publicized drill during which they simulated beating protesters with poles. China's office on Hong Kong affairs encouraged supporters in Hong Kong to "defend the homeland" by staging counter protests, while alleged pro-Beijing white-shirted thugs are continuing attacks on demonstrators.

China has shown itself to be willing to ramp up pressure on anyone, particularly foreign businesses, who appears to support the protests. On Friday, China's airspace regulator announced it was banning staff from Hong Kong's premier airline, Cathay Pacific, from entering Chinese airspace if they had participated in protests.

Cathay first came under fire after one of its pilots was one of dozens of protesters charged with rioting but was allowed to continue flying while released on bail, Cathay has since suspended the pilot.

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