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For China, a growing conundrum: What to do with Hong Kong?

The Washington Post's Shibani Mahtani reports from Hong Kong as huge government protests took place on the 22nd anniversary of the territory’s return to China. (Video: The Washington Post)

HONG KONG — The Chinese government decried protests in Hong Kong as a “flagrant challenge” to the system under which it allows the territory a degree of autonomy, and it backed a crackdown on the “violent criminals” who rampaged through Hong Kong’s legislature.

In another sign that it is increasingly tiring of restraint, Beijing also issued strong warnings to world powers to stay out of its domestic affairs, noting that Western countries have used ­“extremely strict” measures to quell protests. 

The warnings underscore a quandary for Beijing: How long can and should Hong Kong be allowed to remain so defiant before it becomes ungovernable by Beijing’s strict standards?

Fears are mounting that President Xi Jinping’s government might act to put an end to the protests, sparked three weeks ago by a law that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. 

“I am concerned,” said Anson Chan, a former chief secretary of Hong Kong who backs full democracy for the territory. “I hope that the chief executive will speak on behalf of the Hong Kong people and tell Beijing that they have nothing to fear from Hong Kong’s prosperity or from allowing us one man, one vote.”

Ronny Tong, a member of Hong Kong’s cabinet and a legal adviser to chief executive Carrie Lam, issued an even sterner warning. 

“When there is trouble in Hong Kong, when things turn sour and there is violence in the streets, our fear is that if the police are unable to control what is happening here, there’s a remote risk that the [Chinese army] would get involved,” Tong said before Monday’s escalation. 

Listen on Post Reports: Hong Kong correspondent Shibani Mahtani on the escalating protests over a controversial extradition bill.

Perhaps not coincidentally, China’s People’s Liberation Army held an open day Monday at its Hong Kong Garrison, performing military maneuvers with tanks and displaying its firepower to mark the 22nd anniversary of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China.

Monday’s protest was also planned to coincide with that anniversary. Although the proposed law allowing extraditions to the mainland has now been effectively shelved, the protest movement has grown into one expressing a host of deep, pent-up grievances — most fundamentally that the Hong Kong government is not directly elected or genuinely representative. 

But the demonstrations turned violent Monday night. 

A relatively small group of front-line protesters smashed their way into the Hong Kong legislature, removing the Chinese flag from a flagpole and replacing it with a black one featuring a withering bauhinia, the flower on Hong Kong’s emblem. Inside the legislative building, protesters spray-painted over references to the “People’s Republic of China.”

In another particularly cutting gesture, they also draped Hong Kong’s British colonial flag in the chamber, 22 years after it stopped flying here. 

“It is going to get Beijing very, very concerned,” said Steve Tsang, the director of SOAS University of London’s China Institute. “It will start a process in Beijing for them to start to think, what will they do if the Hong Kong government cannot handle [these protests]?” 

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Cleanup begins in Hong Kong after night of anger against a government perceived as a puppet

Beijing reacted angrily Tuesday.

“These serious illegal actions have trampled on Hong Kong’s rule of law, undermined Hong Kong's social order and damaged its fundamental interests, and are a flagrant challenge to the bottom line of ‘one country, two systems,’ ” the Hong Kong and ­Macao Affairs Office, part of the state council, or cabinet office, of the Chinese government, said in a statement.

On July 1, thousands marched through Hong Kong, demanding the withdrawal of a proposed extradition law and the resignation of Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam. (Video: Associated Press)

Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy when it was handed back to China in 1997, including its own political system, legislature, immigration system and economic framework.  

But Beijing’s influence is increasingly being felt in the territory through the way it selects the chief executive, who has stifled freedom of the press and jailed people who oppose the system.

“The central government firmly supports the [Hong Kong] government and police performing their duties lawfully, and supports the relevant departments to hand down punishment against violent criminals, in accordance with the law,” the Chinese statement said.

State-affiliated media noted that Western countries have used stern measures to stamp out protests, mentioning that Britain acted strongly to quell riots in London in 2011.

Together, the statements formed “kind of an instruction” for Lam “to be harsh,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor at Hong Kong Baptist University. 

The unprecedented intensity of Monday’s protests will also give Beijing “a reason for being much more hands-on and more repressive” when it comes to Hong Kong, Cabestan added. 

For Xi, this is not just about Hong Kong. He will also be concerned, analysts said, that the protests and the reaction may strengthen the resolve of Taiwan to assert its independence from the mainland. 

Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who is hawkish toward China, is the front-runner in elections to be held in Taiwan next year and could get an additional boost from the protests in Hong Kong because they illustrate the potential costs to the self-ruled island of closer relations with Beijing.

Hong Kong protesters appeal for international pressure on China at G-20

The question now is how Beijing proceeds.  

After a 79-day occupation of Hong Kong’s streets in 2014, which was then the strongest rebuke of China’s growing political influence, the authorities followed a familiar playbook: arresting and jailing protest leaders in drawn-out proceedings. Young activists who rose to fame through the protests, known as the Umbrella Movement, were disqualified when they ran for and won legislative seats. 

The idea, analysts say, was to create a chilling effect, quash Hong Kong’s civil society and discourage protesters from doing it again — a strategy that largely worked for five years, until recent weeks. 

“They expected that Hong Kong civil society would be paralyzed,” said Ho-Fung Hung, an expert in Chinese political economy and Hong Kong politics at Johns Hopkins University. “They have been very surprised” by the latest demonstrations, he said.  

Cabestan said Beijing would want a two-pronged approach. “Beijing on the one hand will try to convince the Hong Kong authorities to try to give more benefits to the underprivileged,” he said. “On the other hand, Beijing will impose a shorter leash on Hong Kong.”

The Hong Kong government, however, remains in a bind. The city’s housing market is the world’s most expensive, and any solution would not be immediate. 

Meanwhile, mass arrests stemming from Monday’s protests, like Beijing wants, would risk provoking mainstream anger yet again. About 2 million people showed up at a march last month, shocked at a police crackdown on young protesters who surrounded the legislative buildings a few days before.

And then there’s the fundamental question of the legitimacy of Hong Kong’s government and a demand for universal suffrage — a concession that is virtually unthinkable from Beijing. 

“I feel that in the longer run, any kind of unrest in society cannot be resolved without considering some kind of political structure reform, especially for the young people,” said Michael Tien, a pro-Beijing lawmaker. There is a “fundamental frustration,” he added, that Hong Kong’s legislature “is not safeguarding their interests.” 

Wang Yuan in Beijing and Timothy McLaughlin in Hong Kong contributed to this report.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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