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Beijing’s tough talk raises fears of crackdown on Hong Kong protests

China ramped up its rhetoric against Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters Thursday, raising fears here that Beijing may be making plans to quash the demonstrations, if not immediately, then eventually.

The newspaper People’s Daily, a mouthpiece of China’s Communist Party, published an editorial Wednesday decrying what it called the “chaos” of the protests, with a vague warning of the potential consequences.

The protesters “have incited the public, paralyzed transportation, disrupted businesses . . . and interfered with the daily lives of Hong Kong people. They should bear the legal responsibilities for their illegal activities,” the editorial said.

“If a few people are determined to go against the rule of law and provoke disturbances, in the end they will reap what they have sown,” it concluded.

Some observers said the commentary recalled similar sentiments expressed in the paper before the Chinese government’s crackdown June 4, 1989, in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Some Hong Kong democracy activists said they were concerned but not intimidated.

“I hope it does not come to this,” said Albert Ho Chun-yan, the secretary-general of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. “But someone my age must be mature enough to consider this possibility.”

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents have taken to the streets every day since Sunday, when local police used pepper spray and tear gas on several hundred student protesters. A core group of demonstrators have peacefully occupied three main parts of the city since then. Each night, their number has swelled as backers and sympathetic tourists stop by to lend support and join in the spectacle.

The demonstrators accuse Beijing of reneging on a 1984 international agreement that promised Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” after it returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. They accuse Beijing of seeking to rig the slate of candidates who can run in a 2017 election for chief executive, the first of its kind for Hong Kong.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with China’s foreign minister Wednesday in Washington and issued a statement supporting universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

“We believe that an open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by rule of law is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity,” said Kerry in his prepared comments.

According to a White House transcript, China’s foreign minister responded that Hong Kong was a Chinese internal concern.

“All countries should respect China’s sovereignty,” Wang Yi said in his comments, through a translator. “I believe for any country, for any society, no one will allow those illegal acts that violate public order. That’s the situation in the United States, and that’s the same situation in Hong Kong.”

Later, the People’s Daily reported Wang as making even stronger comments to U.S. officials.

“The core of the current situation in Hong Kong is that some people have deliberately and illegally gathered in the busiest streets and districts in Hong Kong and severely disrupted social order,” Wang said, according to People’s Daily.

Hong Kong’s protests have closed several thoroughfares and contributed to a drop in tourism and shopping, especially at luxury stores that cater to visitors from mainland China. Several news outlets have reported that China’s tourism board, as of Tuesday, had stopped approving new tour groups to Hong Kong. That may also be contributing to a tourism drop during “Golden Week,” a Chinese national holiday that often is a boom time in Hong Kong for visitors.

Still, it would be hard to describe the scene on the ground as “chaos,” as the People’s Daily did. A phalanx of volunteers have kept protest sites impeccably clean. Few injuries have been reported, and some officials have credited the closure of streets to contributing to improved air quality in the city.

The situation could change dramatically, however, depending on actions taken by protesters, local police and Beijing.

One student group has threatened to take over government buildings if Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who’s also known as C.Y. Leung, doesn’t resign by Thursday night. Early Thursday morning, a separate group of several hundred people occupied an entrance to Leung’s office complex, creating a new standoff with a phalanx of police officers.

By noon, the number of sit-in demonstrators was visibly lower at two protest sites on Hong Kong island, a possible sign of protest fatigue. At Admiralty, near the government complex, a lone protester named Drake sat with a black sign that said in white letters, “No pre-screening of candidates.”

“People are feeling tired, but I am OK,” said Drake, who asked that his full name not be used because his employer might be unhappy. He said he’d been protesting for several days, when not working, and was exposed to the tear gas Sunday night.

“I am here to try and persuade police to uphold their dignity and not use repression on their own people,” he said. “Tear gas just brings more people out here. They should know that.”

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