BEIJING — The protests in Hong Kong, which have been going on for eight consecutive weekends, have grown increasingly violent. But rather than a military solution, China signaled Monday that it wants a political solution, apparently putting the onus for dealing with the unrest squarely on the city’s embattled leader.

“Hong Kong will surely overcome all difficulties and challenges on its way forward,” Yang Guang, a spokesman for Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, said in an unprecedented news conference, adding that the central government “firmly supports” Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

Beijing officials also called for punishing “radicals” involved in the turmoil that has gripped Hong Kong in recent weeks. But they also acknowledged some causes of young people’s discontent, including the need for more economic opportunity and affordable housing in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.

It was the first time that the office, which answers to China’s State Council, or cabinet, has called a news conference.

“The ship of ‘one country, two systems’ will surely sail far and steady, despite winds and storms,” Yang said, referring to the principle under which China agreed to give the former British colony a high degree of autonomy for 50 years following its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

But signs of China’s influence over Hong Kong abound. The Hong Kong and Chinese flags flew at half-staff above government offices Monday in mourning for Li Peng, the former Chinese premier known as “the Butcher of Beijing” for his role in the bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989.

Speculation surrounding Lam’s leadership

The decision by Chinese officials to face reporters sparked speculation that Beijing might remove Lam, who has not addressed the news media for a week.

While the protests were building on Sunday, she was at a graduation ceremony for the Chinese People’s Liberation Army summer camp at a barracks in Hong Kong.

She did not face the media on Monday, either, as officials in Beijing spoke about the situation in Hong Kong. Instead, she gave the opening remarks at a women’s empowerment forum, speaking about her government’s efforts to create a conducive environment for women in the workforce without mentioning the political tumult in the territory.

Riot police hold up a tear-gas warning during a demonstration on Sunday. (Getty Images)
Riot police hold up a tear-gas warning during a demonstration on Sunday. (Getty Images)

A spokesman for the Hong Kong government, replying to questions from The Post, said it would not respond to “speculative comments” about Lam’s leadership.

“The Government did in fact respond to the marches over the weekend and rejected the violence used by radical protesters,” the spokesman added.

Protesters’ demands

The protests in Hong Kong, triggered by now-suspended plans to allow the territory to extradite suspects to the mainland for trial, have plunged the Asian financial hub into its worst political crisis in decades.

Along with Lam’s resignation, protesters have demanded an independent inquiry into police actions and violence by pro-Beijing gangs toward demonstrators, as well as the full withdrawal of the extradition bill.

The demonstrations have widened into a broader movement calling for greater democratic freedoms, amid concerns that Hong Kong’s liberties and rule of law are coming under growing pressure from Beijing.

In clashes over the weekend, police fired tear gas and projectiles at thousands of protesters in a densely packed neighborhood close to downtown.

Protesters responded with bricks, set fire to carts that they pushed close to police lines and shot at police with crossbows. Police arrested at least 49 people on Sunday, in addition to 11 arrested during a demonstration on Saturday — the most detained in a single weekend since the start of the upheaval.

The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized some of the biggest marches in recent weeks, said it believes that the turbulence will continue unless protester demands are met. More protests are planned for this week, including one organized by Hong Kong civil servants.

Government’s response

On Monday, the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office reiterated its calls for Hong Kongers to adhere to the rule of law. “We must not sit idly by and let a small number of people trample on this important value,” Yang said.

Analysts said the response showed that Beijing did not have an effective strategy for dealing with the unrest.

“They don’t have any short-term answers to the current impasse,” said Adam Ni, a China security expert at Macquarie University in Sydney. “If they go for a hard-line approach, it’s going to backfire. But if they are conciliatory, the protesters will think Beijing is showing weakness, and they will demand more.”

Yang deflected a question about whether the central government was considering sending in the Chinese military to put down the demonstrations.

“There is clear provision, but I will not go into details. Just go and have a look” at the laws, he said. “The most pressing task for the moment is to punish violence and maintain order.”

China maintains a military presence in Hong Kong, and China’s Defense Ministry suggested last week that it was open to using troops to quell the unrest, saying the protests were “intolerable” and that the army would mobilize troops to restore public order if requested by the Hong Kong government.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a government professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, said Beijing would probably become more and more heavy-handed in trying to stifle the protests.

“Repression will prevail,” he said. “And Beijing’s invisible repressive arm will become more and more visible.”

Some in Hong Kong said it was notable that Beijing officials, rather than Lam, did the talking on Monday.

Lam “has almost disappeared before the camera and before the media in the past month, even though a lot of people expect her government should be more decisive in handling the chaos,” said Ivan Choy, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Beijing’s remarks appeared designed to show that “the central government is keeping a close eye on the things happening in Hong Kong” and to send a firm message of support toward Lam and her administration, Choy said.

Instead, it served to further weaken her position, Choy said, by showing that Beijing has a “systematic will” when it comes to Hong Kong, while the territory’s own authorities have all but disappeared.

The protests in Hong Kong, the biggest political crisis since the handover and a significant challenge to the Communist Party of China, come at a difficult time for Beijing.

The protests are boosting the prospects of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who leans toward independence from China and is up for reelection next year. They also coincide with a protracted trade war with the United States.

The Chinese military began drills in the waters to the north and west of Taiwan on Monday, exercises that were designed to send a “deterrent” message to both Taipei and Washington, said Wei Dongxu, a Beijing-based military analyst.

Beijing has been incensed by the Trump administration’s recent decisions to sell arms to Taiwan, which it views as a renegade breakaway province, and by a boost in polls that Tsai is enjoying as Taiwanese see the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong.

Mahtani reported from Hong Kong.

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