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China softens tone on Hong Kong, but doesn't yield on demands

Officials overseeing city seek to make clear distinction between violent protesters and others who have marched peacefully; they strongly back Chief Executive Carrie Lam

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Demonstrators during a rally at Hong Kong's Tamar Park on Tuesday. Beijing's support for peaceful protest marks a shift in emphasis in dealing with a movement that opposes its grip over the city.

Hong Kong

CHINA softened its tone towards Hong Kong's protesters, saying peaceful demonstrations were allowed under the law, even as it ruled out a fundamental demand for direct democracy that has fuelled the unrest.

In a wide-ranging briefing in Beijing on Tuesday, Chinese officials overseeing Hong Kong sought to make a clear distinction between violent protesters who have thrown petrol bombs in running battles with police and others who have marched peacefully through the former British colony.

They also strongly backed Chief Executive Carrie Lam, saying an emergency law could be implemented if necessary and pledging support for the economy.

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"The majority of Hong Kong's citizens, including many young students, are taking part in peaceful demonstrations and have made other appeals," said Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. "They are totally different from those who break the law, commit violent crimes and challenge the bottom line of 'one country, two systems'."

While officials repeatedly condemned violence by a "few thugs" and a "handful of rioters", the support for peaceful protest marked a shift in emphasis in dealing with a movement that opposes China's grip over the city.

The Hong Kong government has struggled to contain unrest that has spiralled since as many as two million people took to the streets in June, shaking the economy and prompting foreign investors to weigh contingency plans.

Chinese officials were trying to drive a wedge between the radical "front line" protesters - often clad in gas masks and yellow hardhats - and more moderate critics of Beijing, said Ivan Choy, a senior politics lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

"The government also knows that, if you want to settle the problem, you have to cut the ties between the peaceful protesters and the radical protesters," he added.

Hong Kong has been governed under a "one country, two systems" framework since its return from the British in 1997, guaranteeing its freedom of expression, independent courts and capitalist financial system. The unrest has prompted concerns that China might step in to crack down on the protesters.

Officials on Tuesday reaffirmed their power to deploy troops or otherwise invoke emergency powers, if things got out of control. Xu Luying, another spokesperson for the Chinese office overseeing Hong Kong, said it would be "absolutely wrong" to assume that deploying troops would mean the end of "one country, two systems".

China has dispatched regional state-run media organisations to Hong Kong in recent days to better control the narrative, Bloomberg News reported earlier on Tuesday, a shift from the widespread censorship employed during the Occupy Protests in 2014.

Meanwhile, the largest commercial news websites in China published stories featuring the slogan "Heart to Heart, Loving Hong Kong" as the government attempts to minimise hostilities between the mainland and Hong Kong.

Earlier in the day, Ms Lam addressed a Reuters report of a leaked audio recording in which she said she had "very, very, very limited" room to meet the demands of protesters and would quit "if I had the choice".

Speaking to reporters, she said she had "not even contemplated to discuss a resignation with the central people's government".

On Tuesday, China said it continued to firmly back Ms Lam. Officials also dismissed a key protester demand for "true universal suffrage", in some of Beijing's most extensive remarks on the issue since an August 2014 edict outlining plans for future chief executive elections that triggered the Occupy protests.

The protests on Saturday - among the most violent and destructive seen so far - were organised to mark the fifth anniversary of that decision. The plan proposed by the Chinese government would've required nominees to be screened by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists before being put to a public vote.

The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office reaffirmed that plan, saying that Beijing would never allow Hong Kong's opposition to pick a leader who wasn't accountable to the central government. "Today, anyone who harbours such an idea will get nowhere," Mr Yang said. BLOOMBERG