Beijing’s press conference on Hong Kong was thankfully very boring

Sunday evenings in Hong Kong.
Sunday evenings in Hong Kong.
Image: Reuters/Edgar Su
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Beijing has finally responded to Hong Kong’s eight straight weeks of protests, with a canned and dull response: resolute support for the city’s government and its police force, strong condemnations of what it deemed violent and radical protesters, and a reaffirmation of “one country, two systems.”

But the rare press conference held in Beijing by the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office today (July 29), which oversees policy for the two cities, also left key questions unanswered, including: what’s to be done to solve Hong Kong’s deep-rooted mess?

Yang Guang, spokesman for the office, reiterated the central government’s full support for Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam and her team, praising them for their work so far, and said that it stood behind the local government’s decision to suspend the controversial extradition bill. Today’s press conference by the Hong Kong and Macau affairs office was the first since the handover to Chinese rule in 1997, according to the South China Morning Post, and come in a year full of sensitive dates for Beijing including the 70th anniversary of the nation’s founding.

A highly anticipated question—whether and under what conditions China would send troops into Hong Kong—was batted away by Yang, who told the reporter to go read the city’s mini constitution, the Basic Law. Last week, questions had swirled in Hong Kong over whether the People’s Liberation Army might eventually be deployed. The Hong Kong government has the authority to call upon the army to maintain public order, but said it has no plans to ask for such help.

Yang also sidestepped questions on protesters’ demands for an independent commission of inquiry into alleged police misconduct.

He and his fellow spokesperson Xu Luying repeatedly said that economic development is the key to solving Hong Kong’s multitude of socioeconomic issues that have formed the underlying basis of the ongoing wave of protests, including unaffordable housing and social mobility. “Development is the golden key to solving Hong Kong’s issues,” said Xu.

Distinctly lacking, however, was any offer of a political solution to Hong Kong protesters’ grievances. Yang reiterated China’s zero-tolerance attitude to any challenge to its sovereignty and authority of the central government, as well as the use of Hong Kong as a base to undermine China. “Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s affairs are China’s internal affairs.”

For much of the past eight weeks of protests, the Hong Kong government has been conspicuously absent, making only limited press appearances. Lam has not directly addressed the public since a media briefing a week ago in response to an armed mob attack on protesters and civilians.

And while violent protests unfurled across downtown Hong Kong yesterday (July 28), she made an unannounced appearance (link in Chinese) at a People’s Liberation Army barracks to attend a graduation ceremony of a summer military bootcamp for students. In the past week, the only senior civil servant to make public comments was Lam’s deputy, chief secretary Matthew Cheung, who apologized on behalf of the police force for not having responded adequately to the armed mob attack on July 21. Cheung’s remarks drew heated condemnation from police ranks, and he quickly backtracked, saying he “totally supports” the force.

Responding to Beijing’s latest remarks, Jimmy Sham, convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, one of the main organisers of the demonstrations in recent weeks, called it “a waste of 40 minutes of Hong Kongers and the world” because China did not address Lam’s failures as the city’s appointed leader.

Fuelling much of Hong Kong protesters’ anger is also their belief that China’s tightening grip over the city is slowly depriving it of its prized freedoms and destroying Hong Kong as they know it. That the press conference failed to address these widespread concerns means none of the underlying distrust of China has been dispelled.

Instead, in recent weeks Beijing has largely made its views on Hong Kong known through coverage in state-run media that accused “foreign actors” of being behind the protests, and condemned protester actions such as breaking into and occupying the Legislative Council on the July 1 anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China. The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in a statement the following day expressed support for the Hong Kong police and government, and called the protests an “undisguised challenge.” Within China, information about the protests has been censored, or skewed (paywall). However, the press conference today appeared to dial back on such talk of meddling by external forces.

The condemnations grew stronger in the past week after some protesters marched to Beijing’s representative office on July 21 and defaced China’s emblem with black paint. The day after, Wang Zhimin, the director of the office, said Hong Kong protesters had “seriously damaged the feelings of all Chinese people.”

This summer’s demonstrations began with a march of an estimated 1 million people on June 9 in opposition to an extradition bill that would have made it possible to send people from Hong Kong to mainland China to face trial, which protesters saw as a dire threat to the freedoms and autonomy guaranteed to Hong Kong as part of the 1997 handover. They’ve since broadened to encompass a range of grievances, including the demand for universal suffrage.

Chief executive Lam has been heavily criticized for failing to understand the widespread opposition to the bill, and for only deciding to suspend it following serious clashes between police and protesters on June 12. Opponents continue to call for the bill to be completely withdrawn.

The protests of the past weekend were focused on police—both for allegedly using excessive force on protesters, and for failing to arrive in time on July 21 to protect people at the train station where the mob of thugs attacked civilians. At today’s conference, Yang repeated that accusations of China’s having been behind the gang attack are “absolutely baseless.”