Reuters reported Tuesday that the Chinese leadership had set up a crisis command center in a luxury villa on the outskirts of Shenzhen, on the mainland side of the border with Hong Kong, to deal with the long-running political unrest in the semiautonomous financial hub.
The report said Beijing was considering replacing its most senior official stationed in Hong Kong, liaison office Director Wang Zhimin, because it was dissatisfied with his handling of the crisis.
In a stunning rebuke to Beijing, Hong Kong residents gave an overwhelming majority to pro-democracy candidates running in local elections held Sunday. Voters handed control of 17 of the territory’s 18 councils to representatives who oppose China’s increasing influence, giving the pro-democracy camp greater say in the choice of Hong Kong’s next leader.
The Foreign Ministry’s office in Hong Kong said Tuesday that it had lodged “solemn representations” with Reuters about the “false report.” It said it had urged the agency “to uphold a true, professional and responsible attitude, and immediately stop spreading false information.”
The ministry has insisted throughout the six months of protests in Hong Kong that the unrest is an internal domestic matter and that China will never waver from the “one country, two systems” formula under which Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997.
Under that framework, Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy a degree of autonomy and relative political freedom until 2047, but its residents are bristling at Beijing’s increasingly muscular control over the territory. Tensions burst into the open in June, when the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government moved to implement a law that would have allowed Hong Kongers to be extradited to the mainland.
Hong Kong has a much stronger and more transparent rule of law than the mainland, and many residents feared that the proposal, which has since been scrapped, could be used to target Beijing’s critics.
The Reuters report, which cited Chinese officials briefed on the discussions, said that Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other top officials have been receiving daily written briefings from the villa, named Bauhinia after the flower emblem of Hong Kong, bypassing the liaison office in Hong Kong.
Embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam had attended meetings there, according to the report, which could not be independently verified.
China’s leaders appear increasingly vexed about how to deal with the unrest in Hong Kong, analysts say, as a months-long crackdown marked by thousands of arrests has only hardened public opinion against Beijing. Having repeatedly refused to offer concessions, Beijing finds itself with few options.
“I don’t think they’re going to change their strategy,” said Jeff Wasserstrom, a professor at the University of California at Irvine and the author of an upcoming book on Hong Kong’s political crisis. “I don’t see any reason to think they are going to make any major concessions.”
Beijing has blamed the protests on outside forces, led by the United States, eager to foment unrest and undermine the Communist Party. It apparently sees evidence of that in the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act just passed by Congress, which is intended to safeguard political freedoms in Hong Kong and pave the way for sanctions against those who undermine those rights.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zheng Zeguang summoned Ambassador Terry Branstad on Monday to “lodge stern representations and strong protest” against the passage of the act.
China urged the United States to “correct its mistake immediately” and “stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs and China’s other internal affairs,” Zheng told Branstad, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
On Tuesday, at her first news conference since the election, Hong Kong leader Lam declined to offer any concessions to protesters, who are calling for an independent probe into police brutality, genuine universal suffrage and other measures. She said Beijing did not blame her for voters’ rejection of pro-Beijing parties and endorsement of the democracy movement.
The central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong serves to propagate Beijing’s influence in the city, report back on political developments and forge patronage networks with business groups and influential local figures. Protesters in Hong Kong pelted the office with eggs and paint over the summer and defaced the Chinese emblem.