Chinese officials condemned protesters in Hong Kong as no different to “terrorists” on Wednesday, a further hardening of the state’s rhetoric amid fears that the country is readying the ground for a military intervention.
After 10 weeks of clashes between protesters and police that threaten the city’s status as a safe transport and international finance hub, Chinese state media also called for a more decisive response from Beijing.
It comes as videos showed Chinese forces assembling for “apparent large-scale exercises” near the border between the mainland and the semi-autonomous city. Donald Trump accused the Chinese government of building up troops and urged calm.
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But in its strongest statement yet on the protests, the Chinese cabinet’s liaison office with Hong Kong said the protesters had “entirely ruptured legal and moral bottom lines” and would face swift and severe repercussions under Hong Kong’s legal system.
Xu Luying, spokesperson for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said the clashes in Hong Kong airport on Monday and Tuesday, which saw five protesters arrested, had “seriously tarnished Hong Kong’s international image”.
She called assaults on two mainland Chinese men, one of whom has been identified as a reporter for the state-run Global Times tabloid newspaper, as “nearly acts of terrorism”.
A front-page commentary on the overseas edition of the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper said Hong Kong had reached a critical juncture.
“Using the sword of the law to stop violence and restore order is overwhelmingly the most important and urgent task for Hong Kong!” it said.
Another commentary published in China Daily, written by Shenzhen University researcher Li Peiwen, suggested that “extreme political ideas” had taken root in Hong Kong and that the central government should deal with the situation more decisively.
However, Chinese state media have still stopped short of calling for military action to deal with the protests. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has a garrison in Hong Kong, but troops have remained in barracks since the protests started in April.
Meanwhile, flights resumed at Hong Kong’s airports on Wednesday as statements were displayed from some protest leaders, regretting the clashes with riot police and asking international travellers “for your understanding and forgiveness as young people in Hong Kong continue to fight for freedom and democracy”.
The airport increased security measures and said it had obtained an injunction to prevent protesters from entering the premises and “unlawfully and wilfully obstructing or interfering” with operations.
An area outside the main terminal had been set aside for demonstrations, management said, adding that no protests would be allowed outside the designated area.
Hong Kong’s flag carrier Cathay Pacific, facing pressure to act from Beijing, said in a statement that it had sacked two pilots who were previously suspended, one for involvement in last month’s clashes, the other for “misusing company information” in relation to the protests.
Where once the Hong Kong protests appeared to be a taboo subject for newsrooms in mainland China, the issue is now dominating TV bulletins.
On Wednesday, state broadcaster CCTV showed interviews with stranded travellers at Hong Kong airport. One flight data company said long-haul bookings to Hong Kong were down almost 5 per cent compared to this period last year.
CCTV has started regularly airing interviews with pro-police demonstrators, according to Reuters, and on Monday it said a female protester had been blinded by fellow demonstrators. There have in fact been conflicting claims over how she was injured during the clashes.
State-run media have been posting messages online describing the city’s crisis as “a shame”. On Weibo, the People’s Daily wrote a post saying “We support the Hong Kong police too!” – it was shared more than 500,000 times.
Many reactions online are speculating about what China will do next, after Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam again refused to stand down or begin dialogue with the protest movement, accusing them of threatening to push their home into an “abyss”.
Some netizens in China’s social media platforms called for Beijing to intervene. Many others, however, have urged calm.
Additional reporting by agencies