29 Jul 2019

China calls for Hong Kong protesters to be punished

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

All eyes today on a news conference in Beijing, which played out live on Hong Kong TV stations: the first news conference, in fact, to be delivered by the arm of China’s State Council which oversees policy in the territory since the handover from Britain in 1997. It was to be China’s official pronouncement on the pitched street battles which have paralysed parts of the city every weekend for two months. The mood was pretty venomous.

The term ‘olive branch’ clearly doesn’t translate into Mandarin. The Chinese government spokesman condemned the “horrendous” violence which yesterday, yet again, shut down parts of central Hong Kong. He urged swift punishment for the small “handfuls” of radical law-breakers who had, in his view, besmirched Hong Kong’s reputation and caused serious damage to the rule of law.

“We absolutely do not tolerate any behaviour that harms national sovereignty and security,” Yang Guang said. It was a red line that was off limits. “‘Two systems’ only exist under the premise of ‘one country’,” he added, making pretty clear that that ‘one country’ was China. He lashed out at what he called “irresponsible” politicians in the West (he offered no names), who he accused of inciting insurrection, aimed at damaging China’s national development. Then he rebuffed a question about whether China might use military force to quell the protests. The law is clear, he said.

The law he’s referring to is Article 14 of the Garrison Law, which stipulates that the People’s Liberation Army can be deployed in Hong Kong at the invitation of the Hong Kong government. That’s where many Hong Kongers fear this is going… the ghosts of Tiananmen haunt each weekend’s protests. China has around 6,000 troops stationed in Hong Kong but the Chief Executive of the territory hasn’t hit the panic button yet. She hasn’t been seen in public for days – although a photograph was published in this morning’s papers showing her at a PLA youth camp on Sunday, sitting in a group photograph next to China’s top official in Hong Kong.

Tonight we look into the vast chasm that divides Hong Kong from its new(ish) master, Beijing, and the disconnect isn’t just over linguistic or cultural differences. At its heart, the gaping fault line is about values. Hong Kongers treasure their freedoms and their democracy and for all the economic arguments about how sensible it would be if Hong Kong could just meld into the greater Pearl River delta megopolis, Hong Konger’s don’t want that. Most don’t even self-identify as Chinese.

Until China understands that and cuts Hong Kong some slack – or until Hong Kongers kowtow to ‘Big Brother’ Beijing, that fault line will continue to be lost in billowing clouds of tear gas. There’s a growing sense here though that unless something gives, something is going to snap