Chinese authorities and masked protesters have held rival press conferences in an attempt to take control of the narrative amid escalating demonstrations in Hong Kong.
In a rare press conference on Tuesday, Beijing sounded its strongest warning yet to protesters not to underestimate the power of the Chinese government.
Calling the demonstrators “brazen, violent and criminal actors”, Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the Chinese government, said: “Don’t misjudge the situation or take restraint as a sign of weakness … don’t underestimate the firm resolve and tremendous power by the central government.”
Yang responded to questions about whether Beijing would deploy its military in Hong Kong by reiterating the Chinese government’s support of Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam. Yang said that with the backing of the Chinese government and the people of China, the Hong Kong government and police were “fully capable of punishing those criminal activities and restoring order”.
Yet, across the border in the city of Shenzhen, police took part in riot training in footage released by the state-run Global Times on Tuesday. Officers faced people dressed in black and wearing colourful hard hats – outfits that evoked those worn by Hong Kong protesters – throwing petrol bombs, pushing a trolley on fire towards police, and hitting officers with wooden sticks.
Earlier on Tuesday, masked protesters staged their first “civilian press conference”, in response to government and police press briefings.
“Netizens have initiated the citizens’ press conference, to bring the people’s unheard voice to the public and to highlight the repeated condemnations and empty rhetoric presented by the [Hong Kong] government,” said an unidentified speaker wearing a yellow hard hat, accompanied by a sign language translator.
The dual press conferences took place a day after some of the worst confrontations between protesters and police, who clashed in at least seven districts of the semi-autonomous city. Police fired teargas and rubber bullets at protesters who occupied roads and vandalised police stations and arrested 148 people aged between 13 and 63 on suspicion of assault and possession of offensive weapons.
Hong Kong, in its ninth week of consecutive mass protests, is facing its most serious political crisis since the former British colony was returned to Chinese control in 1997.
Like much of the protest movement, the demonstrators’ press gathering was organised on the online forum LIHKG, the city’s version of Reddit, and those speaking sought to make it clear they had no political or organisational affiliation, and did not represent all the protesters. It came after Lam on Monday announced the police would hold daily press conferences.
One of the group’s first orders of business was to provide a counter-narrative to claims by the Hong Kong government that the economic slowdown was due to the protests, instead placing the blame squarely on global economic problems.
Later, the speakers reiterated the five demands of the protesters, called for a return of “power back to the people”, and said the “pursuit of democracy” was “the inalienable right of the people”.
News of Monday’s violence filtered into mainland China, where censors have been allowing more discussion of the protests, framed as riots.
On the social media platform Weibo the hashtag #FujianFellows was trending alongside videos of men in white grabbing long bamboo sticks to beat protesters and “protect ordinary neighbours”. Their attack on protesters was reminiscent of a more brutal attack by men similarly dressed in white on 21 July in and around a subway train station in the district of Yuen Long, in which at least 45 people were injured.
The US House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, issued a statement in support of the protesters: “The people of Hong Kong are sending a stirring message to the world: the dreams of freedom, justice and democracy can never be extinguished by injustice and intimidation.”
She said their courage was extraordinary while Hong Kong’s government was “cowardly”, and said it was refusing to respect the rule of law and called for it to meet the Hongkongers’ legitimate democratic aspirations.
China’s foreign ministry released a statement on Tuesday rebuking Pelosi, saying her words and that of others in support of Hong Kong’s protesters had made the demonstrators “even more fearless and lawless”.