By The Straits Times
The comments from the central government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) signal a turning point and show that Beijing’s patience is wearing thin, said experts who believe they could herald increasingly hardline actions from the mainland in the days ahead.
On Friday (October 4), Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam invoked emergency powers to ban face masks at public protests, effective from Saturday.
Many protesters have donned face masks at demonstrations over the last four months both to hide their identities and also to protect themselves from tear-gas fired by police.
The mask ban was welcomed by officials on the mainland, with HKMAO spokesman Yang Guang saying in a lengthy statement on Friday evening that the “current chaos in Hong Kong cannot continue indefinitely”.
“Now it has reached an important moment to take a clearer attitude, and more effective measures to stop the violence and chaos,” said Mr Yang.
The Chinese Communist Party’s official People's Daily also echoed its support in a rare front-page editorial on Saturday.
“It should be clear that for the chaos in Hong Kong to persist until today, one important reason is that violent protesters mask themselves to conceal their identities, so they can openly challenge the law, recklessly use violence, and destroy society's peace," it said.
The HKMAO statement went on to say that the situation in Hong Kong - triggered initially by an extradition Bill that has since been suspended and is due to be withdrawn soon - has “completely changed”.
“Under the intervention of external forces it is evolving into a ‘Hong Kong version of a colour revolution’,” said the HKMAO’s Yang, using the same term that Beijing used to describe the 2014 Occupy Central protests.
Previously, Beijing had only gone so far as to say that the current wave of unrest showed signs of a colour revolution, referring to the uprisings that broke out in the former states of the Soviet Union in the noughties.
Professor Lau Siu Kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official advisory body set up by Beijing, said the comments were significant as the central government saw the situation as deteriorating with the level of violence escalating.
“From Beijing’s point of view the situation is very serious, that's why both the Hong Kong and central government cannot avoid to wait to crush the violence in Hong Kong,” Prof Lau told The Straits Times, adding that this was why Lam’s administration had moved to introduce the anti-mask laws on Friday, after China’s national day on Tuesday.
The laws sparked a wave of protests, leading to a city-wide closure of the MTR system on Friday and Saturday.
Associate Professor Alfred Wu of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy also said that with Beijing clearly defining the unrest in Hong Kong, its approach will get more hardline.
Police actions, which have resulted in two protesters shot by live ammunition so far, will get more violent, he said, adding that a “worst-case scenario” will involve intervention by the mainland's paramilitary force, the People’s Armed Police.
“By invoking emergency powers, it’s a sign that the Hong Kong government actions will continually escalate, there is no going back now,” said Prof Wu.
Beijing’s statements could also be a response to the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act being proposed in the US, he said.
US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi tweeted on Friday evening that the anti-mask law “does not answer the people’s grievances, and only intensifies concerns about freedom of expression”.
It prompted a response from the editor of nationalist tabloid Global Times, Hu Xijin, who tweeted: “So quick to instigate, showing once again what you want to see in Hong Kong most is turmoil, not democracy. Canada, the US ally, bans mask at protest. The US can stage the beautiful sight of masked protest.”