The Chinese government has issued a strong condemnation of protesters who stormed and vandalised Hong Kong’s legislature, calling the act “totally intolerable”, as the UK warned China of serious consequences if it breached an agreement guaranteeing freedoms in the city.
In a statement carried by the state-run Xinhua news agency, the Chinese government’s top representative organisation in Hong Kong said it was “shocked, indignant and strongly condemned” the vandalising of the parliament building, which followed a day of protests on Monday against an extradition bill.
The events pose an unprecedented challenge to the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, and Beijing asked Hong Kong to investigate the “criminal responsibility of violent offenders” for “serious illegal actions”. Protesters could face up to 10 years in prison if prosecuted and convicted for rioting.
“Some extreme elements used excessive violence to storm the legislature building and carried out a series of large-scale assaults. This is shocking, heartbreaking and angering,” the statement said. “Their violent acts are an extreme challenge to Hong Kong’s rule of law and seriously undermined Hong Kong’s peace and stability. It is totally intolerable.”
The Hong Kong and Macau affairs office of China’s state council issued a similarly worded statement of condemnation, vowing to support the Hong Kong authorities in investigating the “violent offenders’ criminal responsibility”.
It said 1 July, the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover of sovereignty from British to Chinese rule, should have been a “joyous day” but “extreme radicals” had instead stormed the legislature.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover from British to Chinese rule, Hong Kong enjoys rights and liberties unseen on the mainland. But protesters accuse Beijing of reneging on that deal, and anger over a proposed bill to allow extradition to the opaque mainland Chinese court system has turned into wider protests against the government.
The UK foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, warned against using the vandalism of the legislature as a pretext to attack the city’s freedoms. “The UK signed an internationally binding legal agreement in 1984 that enshrines the one country, two systems rule, [and] enshrines the basic freedoms of the people of Hong Kong,” he said.
“We stand four square behind that agreement, four square behind the people of Hong Kong. There will be serious consequences if that internationally binding legal agreement were not to be honoured.” Hunt did not specify what those consequences would be.
Separately, the UK said there were no existing export licences to sell tear gas or other crowd control equipment to the Hong Kong police. Rubber bursting tear gas grenades that were manufactured in Derby by British company Chemring, have been discovered by protestors, apparently from existing stockpiles.
The last UK licence - for law enforcement training purposes - was worth £110,726 and granted in July 2018 at around the time a previous licence with an unlimited value from July 2015 had expired. Arms trade campaigners in the UK had been concerned the second tear gas licence was still valid despite Hunt’s statement two weeks ago would suspend future sales of CS grenades.
Hong Kong police had fired teargas early on Tuesday to disperse hundreds of defiant protesters who had occupied the legislature. As smoke filled the air, hundreds of protesters wearing hard hats, goggles and masks ran away, clutching umbrellas to protect themselves against the chemicals and also to shield themselves from security cameras.
At least 54 people were taken to hospital after the protests, according to the Hong Kong hospital authority.
In a pre-dawn press conference, Carrie Lam, the city’s Beijing-appointed chief executive, described the scenes of vandalism as “heartbreaking and shocking”. She said: “This is something we should seriously condemn because nothing is more important than the rule of law in Hong Kong.”
The president of the legislative council said repairs to the “extensively damaged” complex were expected to take a long time.
In a break with their silence over the pro-democracy demonstrations in recent weeks, Chinese state media ran footage on Tuesday of police in Hong Kong clearing protesters from streets and moving into roads surrounding the legislative council.
The Global Times, a Communist party mouthpiece, called for “zero tolerance” of the incident. “Out of blind arrogance and rage, protesters showed a complete disregard for law and order,” said both the Chinese and English versions of its editorial on Tuesday.
“Chinese society is all too aware that a zero-tolerance policy is the only remedy for such destructive behaviour witnessed. Otherwise, and without this policy, it would be similar to opening a Pandora’s Box,” it said.
The state-run China Daily paper published a celebratory news report about the anniversary of the handover. “A festive atmosphere enveloped Hong Kong on Monday as people from different backgrounds joined various activities to celebrate the anniversary,” the newspaper said.
The article mentioned the protests only in its final paragraphs. “Also on Monday, a large number of protesters took to the streets to march against the government’s suspended extradition amendment bill. Some clashed with police as they stormed into the legislative council,” it said.
An editorial reiterated the principle of one country, two systems, saying the former British colony was an “inalienable” part of China and that Hong Kong affairs concerned only China. “The only way for the special administrative region to sustain economic growth and maintain stability is for it to further integrate its own development into the nation’s overall development,” the newspaper said.
Support for the protests came from Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province. Its president, Tsai Ing-wen, urged the Hong Kong authorities to listen to the protests. “As president of a country that walked the long road to democracy, I urge the Hong Kong government to address the legitimate concerns of the people and their pursuit of freedom & democracy,” she tweeted.
Additional reporting by Christy Choi in Hong Kong