China’s top office for Hong Kong affairs said it had legal power to unilaterally declare a state of emergency in the city if unrest continues unabated, while laying out specific measures for the city’s leader to address protests.
The comments came amid hints of tensions and disagreements between Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, and her bosses in Beijing over what should be done to try to allay widespread public sentiment against the government in the former British colony.
Beijing made the comments—in which officials referred to the protest movement becoming more like the “color revolutions” that unseated governments in the Middle East and Eastern Europe—after a weekend of clashes that disrupted the city’s airport. A workers’ strike and a class boycott by thousands of students have extended demonstrations into the workweek.
Earlier Tuesday, Mrs. Lam had insisted her government can deal with the long-running protests. The chief executive also said she had never tendered her resignation and was committed to pulling the city out of the political crisis.
Mrs. Lam said she was disappointed that comments she made at a recent closed-door meeting with businesspeople—in which she lamented the difficulties of serving both the central government and the people of Hong Kong—had been leaked.
Beijing officials said they saw the situation in Hong Kong as taking a positive turn recently as more sections of society denounce violence and reiterated their backing for Mrs. Lam to resolve the protests, which have rocked the city and damaged its economy during the past three months.
Beijing made clear Tuesday that it is laying the groundwork to step in if needed. Chinese officials floated a slate of detailed measures for a crackdown, including raising the idea of outlawing masks for Hong Kong protesters and saying that teachers who encouraged students to protest must be punished for their “heinous crime.”
Patriotic education must be introduced into Hong Kong schools, said Xu Luying, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. An effort to introduce patriotic education in 2012 triggered mass street protests that galvanized a new generation of young political activists who are prominent in this summer’s uprising.
The comments from the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council were the first time officials had mentioned unilateral intervention and raise questions about how much autonomy Hong Kong’s government has.
Under “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong was promised 50 years of no change and more freedoms than mainland Chinese citizens enjoy, until 2047. The protests this summer were sparked by fear of Beijing’s increasing reach, as residents took to the streets to oppose a law that would have allowed local suspects to be tried under the mainland’s opaque judicial system. Protesters’ demands have since broadened to include greater democracy.
“It’s a wrong notion that the deployment of the People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong would be the end of one country, two systems,” Ms. Xu said at the briefing in Beijing. “Hong Kong’s Basic Law allows for Hong Kong to request help or for the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to declare a state of emergency.”
Victor Gao, an interpreter for former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, said the latter stipulation of the Basic Law means Beijing can intervene unilaterally without Mrs. Lam’s request, but that they are still giving her a chance first.
Mr. Gao, who is no longer serving in government, said he believed that if Beijing intervenes, it will be with police officers or other methods, not with the PLA.
In a sign of Beijing’s concerns over the optics of cracking down on students, Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau affairs office, harshly criticized “separatists” Tuesday for turning teenagers into “foot soldiers and pawns” in Hong Kong.
Earlier Tuesday, Mrs. Lam renewed her commitment to staying in her position after the Reuters news agency reported a day earlier that she had told a meeting of business leaders that her role in the continuing unrest was unforgivable and that she would quit if she had the choice.
Mrs. Lam said her words, spoken in a private capacity, reflected her musings rather than reality, and she maintained that she had never tendered her resignation. In an audio recording of her remarks released by Reuters, Mrs. Lam can be heard lamenting the precarious nature of being a chief executive.
“The political room for the chief executive, who unfortunately has to serve two masters by constitution—that is the central people’s government and the people of Hong Kong—that political room for maneuvering is very, very, very limited,” Mrs. Lam said in the recording. She added that the situation was more difficult to address locally because it had been elevated to a national level with regards to sovereignty and security.
The leaked audio recording puts forth the idea that the local government is no longer governing Hong Kong in an autonomous manner, said Ho-Fung Hung, a political economy professor at Johns Hopkins University. “It turns from open secret to official knowledge that Beijing is masterminding the response to the protest,” he said.
In recent weeks, Mrs. Lam said she would start a dialogue with people from all backgrounds and political platforms, though she hasn’t met any key figures from the opposition movement.
“Hong Kong needs constructive dialogue badly,” said Mr. Yang, the government spokesman in Beijing. He said Beijing supports Mrs. Lam’s talks with Hong Kongers, adding that he hoped discussion could turn “rage into harmony.”
Beijing policy experts have also been floating possible changes to Hong Kong’s political system that would put more centralized power in the hands of the city’s executive chief. Such changes would almost certainly face intense public resistance in Hong Kong.
The city is entering a fourth month of social upheaval sparked by protests over a bill that Mrs. Lam proposed. Mass protests and, in recent weeks, near daily clashes between hard-core protesters and police have occurred in the city’s streets and subway stations. Protesters have a slate of demands including democratic changes and an independent inquiry into how police have handled the demonstrations.
At Tuesday’s news conference in Beijing, spokeswoman Ms. Xu said that Hong Kong schoolteachers who encouraged students to protest had lost their decency and must be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
Thousands of high school and university students are participating in their second day of class boycotts in Hong Kong. The government’s proposal to introduce patriotic education in Hong Kong in 2012 is often cited by young activists as the moment of their political awakening. Amid protests at the time, the measures were never introduced.