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Beijing Threatens Hong Kong Protesters


Protesters in Hong Kong want mainland China to impose less influence on them. In response, China is imposing even more influence. Yesterday, the top Chinese official in Beijing for Hong Kong affairs issued a grim warning. He said as follows, quote, "those who play with fire will perish by it." This comes in the aftermath of more demonstrations in Hong Kong Monday when a general strike brought the city to a standstill.

NPR's Beijing correspondent Emily Feng is following all this now and joins us. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hi, good morning.

MARTIN: So it bears repeating. This was the quote from that Chinese government official - those who play with fire will perish by it. I mean, that's not just a warning. That's a violent threat.

FENG: It is very stark. Beijing said they had, quote, "tremendous power to counter protests." The same office came back today and said they would not sit idly by if protests spun out of control. They also had an earful for the U.S. They blamed the U.S. for meddling and encouraging the protests. But also keep in mind, these comments were broadcast all over Hong Kong, but also all over mainland China. So their audience is not just the protesters. It's for their own citizens in China to tell them Beijing's narrative and also to tell them we've got this under control.

MARTIN: So is there any indication that this threat is going to have any impact on the protest movement in Hong Kong?

FENG: No. If anything, it's inflamed them more. And there are protests planned for this upcoming weekend. The protesters want to directly elect a new leader. They want an investigation into police brutality. And they want an end to this extradition bill to China that's sparked all the protests to begin with. But what Beijing has said over the last few days has completely ignored all these demands.

I spoke to Lo Kin-hei. He is a district-level opposition official and a protester. And he believes there's nothing Beijing can do now to take protesters off the streets.

LO KIN-HEI: There are a lot of opportunities in the past, but the government has already missed them. Most of the Hong Kong people just think Beijing's wordings are just some excuses for them to kind of suppress all the things that happen in Hong Kong.

MARTIN: So if the move by China, this threat by China, is not deterring protesters - it's inflaming them - I mean, what's the next step? Is - does it make military intervention by Beijing a possibility?

FENG: Right now, that's still unlikely. And it's improbable because Hong Kong's status as an international financial center is incredibly valuable. And if there were to be some kind of military crackdown from Beijing, that would destroy that status.

At the same time, Beijing does have this deadline coming up, which is October 1. And that's when China celebrates its 70th anniversary since its founding. And it would look really bad if there were still protests against their rule in Hong Kong. So likely, they're going to take other measures to quell protests in the meantime.

Yesterday, Beijing said that they were going to call on its supporters in Hong Kong to, quote, "stand up and firmly protect the homeland." And what that means is we can reasonably expect to see more pro-Beijing counter-protesters in Hong Kong doing things like singing the Chinese anthem or raising the Chinese flag, or maybe even some of those white-shirted thugs who have been hitting protesters at rallies.

MARTIN: Right. How are people in mainland China observing all this?

FENG: All the media outlets here are framing this as a foreign conspiracy designed to destroy China's economy, and people here buy it. People here I talk to see Hongkongers as spoiled and the protests are a nuisance. The Hongkongers are seen as having already a very comfortable standard of living, special economic privileges under Chinese rule, and - so why should they be protesting?

MARTIN: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Thanks, Emily. We appreciate it.

FENG: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.