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‘Any Attempt to Play With Fire Will Only Backfire.’ Beijing Issues Stern Warning to Hong Kong Protesters

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The Chinese government issued its harshest rebuke of Hong Kong’s protests to date Tuesday, condemning recent actions as a threat to the city’s rule of law and warning that the “handful of brazen and violent” demonstrators will be punished.

“The protests taking place in Hong Kong have gone way beyond the scope of freedom of assembly and demonstration,” says Yang Guang, spokesperson for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO). “They have morphed into extreme acts of violence.”

The comments seem to indicate Beijing will adopt an even harder line against the protest movement that has rocked the semiautonomous Chinese enclave for nine weeks, posing an enormous challenge to the central government.

Speaking in a noticeably harsher tone than last week’s press conference, China’s top policy official in Hong Kong reiterated Beijing’s support for the local government and police force. “Any attempt to play with fire will only backfire,” he says.

His remarks follow three consecutive days of protest that ended Monday with a general strike that brought Asia’s financial center to a standstill. After transport disruptions halted half the subway lines and forced the cancellation of more than 200 flights, protestors fanned across the city staging rallies. In several locations, clashes erupted with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Police reportedly arrested 148 people Monday in the largest single-day crackdown yet.

In his address, Yang attacked the “small number of radical protestors” who have thrown bricks at police, ignited smoke bombs and set fires at demonstration sites, calling such behavior a serious danger to the public.

Referring to an incident over the weekend when some demonstrators removed the Chinese national flag and threw it into the harbor, Yang said “they will have to face justice some day in the future” for their “shameless acts.”

Hong Kong’s protests initially kicked off over a proposed extradition bill that would have allow the transfer of fugitives to mainland China. But the proposal has since been suspended, and the movement has broadened to encompass other political demands including greater democracy, and more autonomy from Beijing.

From the outset, Beijing has accused Western governments of fueling the city’s unrest from behind the scenes. Yang repeated the jingoistic narrative, and even called out Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence by name.

“Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong,” he says.

Last week, China’s military released a video showing troops carrying out drills and cracking down on protestors in what appears to be a warning that the People’s Liberation Army could be called upon to restore order. Hong Kong officials and police have repeatedly denied such a move is in the works.

When asked if the army would intervene if violence continues to escalate, Yang only said, “Don’t underestimate the firm resolve and tremendous power of the central government.”

As the demonstrations move into their third month, the protestors’ resolve shows little signs of abating. On Wednesday, lawyers will hold a lunchtime silent march from the city’s top court to the Department of Justice, and protests in at least four districts have been planned for the coming weekend.

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Write to Hillary Leung / Hong Kong at hillary.leung@time.com