China's top official overseeing Hong Kong affairs said Wednesday that late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping foresaw the possibility of the army being used to suppress turmoil in the territory, while referring to the ongoing chaotic protests against a now-suspended China extradition bill, Hong Kong media reported.
Speaking to legislators, businesspeople and others at a gathering in the southern city of Shenzhen, Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said if the situation in Hong Kong spirals out of control of local authorities, the central government, which maintains a People's Liberation Army garrison in the territory, will help put down the unrest, Cable TV News reported.
Zhang recalled how Deng mentioned in speeches in 1984 and 1987 that if Hong Kong were engulfed in turmoil, the central government would have to intervene in a timely manner.
"Hong Kong's bill amendment disputes have lasted 60 days. They are growing bigger in scale and more violent in nature and are reaching to more sectors in the society," he said. "It is Hong Kong's most serious situation since the handover."
The former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, at which time it was promised autonomy in all but defense and foreign affairs.
Millions of protesters have since June taken to the streets in protest against the extradition bill, which would allow fugitive transfer to jurisdictions including mainland China.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has suspended the bill and subsequently labeled it "dead" in failed bid to calm public anger.
The protesters' demands include full withdrawal of the bill, an independent inquiry into alleged police abuse of power amid the protests and a pardon for those arrested.
Some protests have ended in clashes, with police firing tear gas and other nonlethal weapons, and protesters pelting them with bricks and debris and vandalizing police stations.
Zhang was said to have condemned some protesters who chanted such slogans as "liberate Hong Kong" and "revolt," and who defaced the national emblem at China's representative office, accusing them of challenging China's sovereignty.
"Zhang has said the priority now is to stop the violence and suppress the riot," National People's Congress Standing Committee member Tam Yiu-chung said following the talk. "The central government does not tolerate acts that challenge the 'one country, two systems' principle."
Elsie Leung, Hong Kong's former Justice Secretary and former deputy director of the Basic Law Committee, said the central government has confidence in the Hong Kong government and police in handling the crisis, but it has not ruled out military intervention.
"Even the People's Liberation Army were to deploy in Hong Kong, it will be executed according to the Basic Law and the 'one country, two systems' principle," Leung said. "There will be no contradicting the principle, which will still continue to function (even after military deployment.)"
The arrest Tuesday night of a university student for buying 10 laser pointers that were believed to be weapons for use against police prompted more than 1,000 people to protest at a police station through early Wednesday. Police said some 20 rounds of tear gas were fired and nine others have been arrested following hours of clashes.
Meanwhile, thousands of lawyers on Wednesday carried out their second silent march in two months to protest against the extradition bill while urging the justice secretary to explain the expedited prosecution decision against some protesters.
"The legal profession has a duty to call these decisions out, to tell the Hong Kong public that we too do not think these decisions are being made free from political considerations," barrister and lawmaker Dennis Kwok said.
Secretary Teresa Cheng did not show up from her office to meet with the lawyers, but issued a statement saying that the Basic Law stipulates that the Justice Department "shall control criminal prosecutions, free from any interference. There is no political consideration."