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China to brief on Hong Kong unrest after weekend of protests

China's top office for Hong Kong affairs plans a briefing on the city's unrest, after a weekend of demonstrations illustrated the challenge of quelling a protest movement that's leaderless, unpredictable and widespread.

[HONG KONG] China's top office for Hong Kong affairs plans a briefing on the city's unrest, after a weekend of demonstrations illustrated the challenge of quelling a protest movement that's leaderless, unpredictable and widespread.

Police deployed tear gas and rubber bullets throughout downtown Hong Kong Sunday to clear thousands of protesters who gathered to air their grievances for the eighth straight weekend.

Demonstrators marched east through the city's central business district, then west, before splitting in two. The tactics seemed to catch police off guard as demonstrators again focused their anger at officers following a day of clashes in Yuen Long near the mainland Chinese border.

The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, which reports to China's cabinet, scheduled a news conference Monday in Beijing, which the South China Morning Post newspaper said was a first since the end of British colonial rule in 1997.

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By Sunday night, clouds of tear gas hovered over the normally buzzing downtown area of Sai Ying Pun, which also hosts the Chinese government's main office in Hong Kong. Protesters vandalised the building last week, drawing stern warnings from Beijing and sparking fears that China's military would be called in to restore order.

At least 49 people were arrested following Sunday's unrest, where bricks, glass bottles and paint bombs were hurled at police officers, and traffic signs were removed.

"The radical protesters' acts were getting increasingly violent," according to a government statement early Monday, adding that the crowd had "obviously deviated from the principle of expressing opinions in a peaceful manner". 

The chaotic weekend also showed that Hong Kong's protesters are sustaining momentum for a protracted fight against embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her supporters in Beijing, drawing comparisons with France's Yellow Vests movement. The question now is whether she - or Chinese President Xi Jinping - can make any more concessions to deflate the uprising, which threatens to paralyze policy making and scare away businesses from the financial hub.

Fear of fatalities

"I don't know how it's going to end," said opposition lawmaker Fernando Cheung, who stood with a group of protesters in the central shopping area of Causeway Bay, which remained peaceful. "The only solution is for the government to back down. Otherwise, I think we would be going toward more casualties and I am afraid even fatalities."

With demonstrators dispersed across four separate districts over the weekend, it was hard to tell how many took part compared with previous weeks. Protesters said thousands joined the airport sit-in, and about 300,000 people took part in Saturday's march through Yuen Long, where train commuters, including a lawmaker, were attacked last weekend.

Police wouldn't estimate crowd sizes because all but one protest lacked a permit. About a dozen protesters were arrested, and injuries - some serious - were reported among demonstrators and police.

Financial hit

The protests are increasingly hurting the city's reputation as a stable environment for business. Hong Kong's Financial Secretary Paul Chan said in a blog post Sunday that many local retail and catering businesses had experienced a "sharp decline" in business, warning that small and medium-sized enterprises will face more pressure the longer they go on. The sprawling Sogo department store in Causeway Bay, owned by Lifestyle International Holdings, was closed on Sunday.

Mr Chan and other officials are grappling with the longer term implications of Hong Kong's biggest political crisis since its return to Chinese rule. What began eight weeks ago as a mass movement to stop the passage of legislation that would ease extraditions to mainland China has since widened to include calls for Ms Lam's resignation and an investigation into the force used by police as they've dispersed crowds.

"Even Carrie Lam's resignation and universal suffrage aren't going to resolve the crisis in Hong Kong," said Oscar Cheung, an office worker in his twenties, as he gathered in a downtown area. "The truth is China is having a tighter and tighter grip on Hong Kong and our rights."

Several protesters carried American flags as they marched, threatening to further stoke tensions between China and the US even as high-level trade talks restart on Monday. Beijing this week said Washington should remove its "black hand" from Hong Kong's protests, some of its most pointed criticism yet against what it says is American interference in the city's affairs. The US denies backing the protests.

China's complaints have increased as the US issues statements urging it to respect the rights of protesters who oppose its increasing control over the city. Mr Xi has so far maintained support for Ms Lam in part to avoid setting a precedent in which popular demonstrations initiate political change.

Riot police on Sunday carried shields, marched in rows and were backed by police vehicles with flashing lights as they engaged in a tense hours-long standoff with demonstrators, eventually charging at them and forcibly wrestling some people to the ground to arrest them. Protesters wore masks and hard hats, occupying a main thoroughfare in the neighborhood. As violence kicked off, some used street signs as shields.

'Liberate' Hong Kong

Earlier in the day, demonstrators marched from a central gathering point without a definite plan toward the Admiralty, Wan Chai and Causeway Bay areas that were ground zero for previous mass rallies. They chanted slogans including "liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our time", "shame on police who beat people" and "return us the right to demonstrate". 

"Sadly and shamefully, the leaders in Beijing now do not address all these demands," said Kwok Ka Ki, a lawmaker in a pro-democracy party. "They just use police, use all the forces, use the tear gas, use the rubber bullets just to force the people away. It doesn't help at all. We all know you can't deal with a political issue by using force."'