China warns Hong Kong protesters not to ‘play with fire

China has issued a strong warning to Hong Kong’s protesters, saying their attempts “to play with fire will only backfire”.

A spokesman for China’s top policy office in Hong Kong told protesters not to “underestimate the firm resolve [of] the central government”.

Anti-China forces are the “behind-the-scenes masterminds” of violence in the city, the spokesman claimed.

Hong Kong has seen nine consecutive weekends of anti-government protests.

On Monday, the city’s leader Carrie Lam warned that it was “on the verge of a very dangerous situation”.

In her first media address in two weeks, she also accused activists of using the extradition bill as a cover for their real goals.

The protests, first sparked by a controversial extradition bill, show no sign of abating after more than two months of demonstrations.

A city-wide strike on Monday crippled transport services and brought the city to a standstill.

Protests later took place in several districts, with police firing tear gas at demonstrators who rallied into the night, setting fires and besieging police stations.

Why are people protesting?

The rallies began with fears over a proposed bill that would allow suspected criminals to be sent to mainland China to face trial.

Critics said it would undermine Hong Kong’s judicial independence and could be used to target those who spoke out against the Chinese government.

Though the bill has now been suspended, demonstrators want it fully withdrawn – and have broadened their demands to include an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, an amnesty for protesters accused of rioting, and the resignation of Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam.

The protests have become a wider challenge to Beijing’s authority – and a reflection of the anxiety some Hong Kongers feel about the terms of its handover to China.

Protesters hold placards and banners during the demonstration, 21 July

Hong Kong is part of China under a “one country, two systems” principle, which ensures that it keeps its own judicial independence, its own legislature and economic system.

But many are increasingly worried about China’s influence in the territory – of which the extradition bill is just one example.

Rights groups cite examples such as legal rulings that have disqualified pro-democracy legislators, and the disappearances of five Hong Kong booksellers, and a tycoon – all of whom eventually re-emerged in custody in China.

The Chinese army has so far stayed out of the dispute, but China’s top policy office in Hong Kong has condemned the protests, calling them “horrendous incidents” that have caused “serious damage to the rule of law”.

Last week, China’s army in Hong Kong prompted unease by posting a video of soldiers conducting anti-riot drills on the Chinese social media network Weibo.

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