Just a few days ago, the Chinese government appeared ready to finally explain how it would get a grip on the spiralling political crisis in Hong Kong.
A fortnight after the Chinese Communist party’s Central Committee issued vague warnings that it would force the territory to implement tough national security laws and tighten its hold on the appointments of the city’s leaders, officials in the former UK colony were told to expect a visit by the Zhang Xiaoming, head of Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office.
But after a police shooting on Monday triggered some of the worst violence seen in the city since protests against a controversial extradition bill erupted in June, three people briefed on Mr Zhang’s itinerary said he had decided to postpone his visit.
Instead President Xi Jinping, in his first public comments on the crisis, on Thursday night reiterated the Chinese government’s demands that Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, take more “forceful actions . . . to punish those who have committed violent crimes”.
But Mr Xi’s administration has yet to signal any room for compromise on the demonstrators’ five key demands. The most important of these are an independent judicial inquiry into the five-month crisis — including allegations of police brutality — and the introduction of genuinely democratic elections to choose Hong Kong’s chief executive and all 70 members of its legislature.
The result has been the paralysis of Ms Lam’s administration. Even as the number of protester arrests has risen above 4,000, there is no end in sight to the demonstrations that have now transformed almost all of Hong Kong’s universities into fortresses and gridlocked traffic in the territory’s main business district for five consecutive days.
“[Ms Lam’s] administration has given up,” said Mike Rowse, a retired Hong Kong civil servant and former head of the territory’s investment recruitment agency. “I detect no sign of anyone doing anything. This is scary in the extreme.”
During this week’s protests, demonstrators immolated a man who confronted them, leaving him with life-threatening injuries. On Thursday night an elderly man died after being struck in the head by a thrown brick.
“The recent escalation is alarming. Setting fire to that guy was the last straw,” said Mr Rowse. “The urgent thing now is [for Hong Kong] to do something about the law and order situation.”
Zhang Jian, a Hong Kong expert at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, a think-tank, added: “The Hong Kong government needs to take stronger measures to cope with the higher levels of violence. But Carrie Lam is faced with pressure from all sides and many roadblocks.”
Against that fraught backdrop, people briefed on Mr Zhang’s visit welcomed his decision to delay. His presence, let alone the introduction of security laws, could have inflamed the situation. “I think Beijing can tell we have enough trouble already,” said one former senior Hong Kong government official.
The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office did not respond to a request for comment.
Chinese officials had hoped that the rising number of arrests — as well as public frustration with increasingly violent incidents, disruption to commutes and widespread economic pain — would slow the movement’s momentum.
But the periods of relative calm have been shattered by violence. In August, protesters forced the closure of Hong Kong’s airport. Last month, Ms Lam’s use of an emergency power to enact a mask ban sparked protests that brought the territory’s entire subway network to a halt.
But Mr Xi and Ms Lam may be even more worried by the widespread public support that Hong Kong’s “front-line” student protesters still appear to enjoy.
Far from the violence that has rocked Hong Kong’s university campuses this week, office workers have spent their lunch breaks peacefully occupying the streets of the territory’s main business and financial district.
The typically mild-mannered professionals have expressed strong solidarity with the protest movement and disgust with what many regard as excessive use of force by Hong Kong police.
“The stick action [by baton-wielding police] is just out of control. They are giving guys wood shampoos all the time and for no reason,” said Mark Simon, a senior executive at Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy newspaper group.
But Mr Simon also believes that the protesters’ radical tactics are hurting their cause. “The vandalism and violence, a primal scream of sort, is coming off as unhinged and is completely unproductive,” he said. “The violence gives the police the rationale not to allow the big [peaceful] marches that are so effective.”
Additional reporting by Xinning Liu
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