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China warns HK protesters: Don't play with fire

Beijing says not to mistake its restraint for weakness; vows to bring demonstrators to justice

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A screengrab from a three-minute propaganda video, received on Aug 1 from China's People's Liberation Army HK Garrison, showing PLA soldiers warning "protesters" during an "anti-riot" drill in Hong Kong.

Beijing

PROTESTERS in Hong Kong must not "play with fire" and mistake Beijing's restraint for weakness, China said on Tuesday in its sharpest rebuke yet of the "criminals" behind demonstrations in the city whom it vowed to bring to justice.

China also urged Hong Kong residents to stand up to protesters challenging the government, after a general strike that led to a day of traffic chaos, mob violence, tear gas and flight cancellations.

Hong Kong has suffered weeks of sometimes violent protests that began with opposition to a now-suspended extradition law, which would have allowed suspects to be tried in mainland courts.

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But the protests have swelled into a broader backlash against the government of the Asian financial hub, fuelled by many residents' fear of eroding freedoms under the increasingly tight control of the Communist Party in Beijing.

"I would like to warn all of the criminals: don't ever misjudge the situation and mistake our restraint for weakness," the Chinese government's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said in a document issued during a briefing in Beijing.

A small group of violent radicals were at the forefront of the protests, with "some kind-hearted citizens who have been misguided and coerced to join", according to the document attributed to two officials, Yang Guang and Xu Luying.

It said anti-China forces were the "behind-the-scenes masterminds" who had "openly and brazenly emboldened" the protesters.

"We would like to make clear to the very small group of unscrupulous and violent criminals and the dirty forces behind them: those who play with fire will perish by it," the office said.

"At the end of the day, they will eventually be punished." China has been quick to label US officials as "black hands" instigating unrest in Hong Kong in an attempt to contain China's development, but it has not provided any concrete evidence.

A bipartisan group of US lawmakers on Friday urged the Trump administration to suspend future sales of munitions and crowd-control equipment to Hong Kong police, which have been accused of using excessive force.

China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) in Hong Kong has remained in barracks since the protests started in April, leaving Hong Kong's police force to deal with the massive demonstrations.

Last week, the PLA garrison there issued a three-minute video showing "anti-riot" exercises, and its top brass warned violence is "absolutely impermissible".

Diplomats and foreign security analysts are watching the situation closely, but believe there's little appetite in Beijing for the PLA to be deployed on the streets of Hong Kong.

So far, the central government and the PLA have said only that there are clear provisions in law covering the prospect of the force's intervention in the city.

During the briefing, the document's co-author Mr Yang, who is from the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, called the PLA "a strong force that defends every inch of its sacred territory", and said the central government would not allow any "turbulence" beyond the control of the Hong Kong government to threaten national unity or security.

"The PLA is a force of power but also a civilised power," Mr Yang said.

"As long as it has the strong support of the central government and the Chinese people, the Hong Kong government and police "are fully capable of punishing those criminal activities and restoring public order and stability", he said.

Ken Yau, a lecturer on the University of Hong Kong's social sciences faculty, said statements from Beijing urging people to stand up to protesters could encourage vigilante groups who have recently assaulted them.

"If Beijing wanted to take a more popular strategy, they should have highlighted their distance from these gangsters, but this implies that they give a green light to them," Mr Yau said. In recent weeks, protesters and nearby bystanders have also found themselves targeted by gangs of stick-wielding men, including a July 21 attack in the northern suburb of Yuen Long that resulted in the arrest of some suspects with connections to the city's notorious triad gangs. On Monday, there were reports of similar attacks in the North Point and Tsuen Wan areas.

Mr Yang wasn't asked about the mob attacks on Tuesday. When queried about the Yuen Long incident last week, he said, "I hope that Hong Kong people from all walks of life will clearly oppose and resist the violence."

The MSCI Hong Kong Index pared losses to close 0.6 per cent lower on Tuesday, its 10th straight day of declines. The last time local stocks had such a long losing streak was June-July 1984, five months before China and the UK signed their agreement on Hong Kong's return in 1997.

The unrest has hit the city's economy, denting tourism and retail sales to worsen the pain from the US-China trade war. The IHS Markit PMI for Hong Kong sank to 43.8 in July from 47.9 a month earlier. That's its lowest reading since March 2009, when the fallout from the global financial crisis was still raging. REUTERS, BLOOMBERG