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Hong Kong protesters demand power for the people as China warns against 'playing with fire'

Vanessa Yung, AFP | Three masked protesters hold a press conference in Hong Kong on August 6, 2019.

Representatives of the Hong Kong protest movement took the unusual step of holding a press conference on Tuesday to press their demands for more democracy even as China’s central government warned protesters not to underestimate its “firm resolve”.

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The semi-autonomous city has been wracked by two months of protests and clashes between police and demonstrators in the biggest threat to Beijing's rule since its 1997 handover from Britain.

Tuesday's press conference by masked protesters marked the first time people from within the largely leaderless movement delivered a statement in a formal setting.

"We call on the government to return the power back to the people and to address the demands of Hong Kong citizens," said the two young men and one woman as they read out their statements in both English and Cantonese.

Dressed in the movement's signature yellow construction helmets and hiding their identities with face masks, the protesters billed their gathering as a civilian press conference "by the people, for the people".

"This platform aims to act as a counterweight to the government's monopoly on the political discourse on this issue," they said, adding that they were not affiliated with any political party or group.

The event came a day after a general strike caused widespread travel disruption and saw clashes in a dozen different locations across the international finance hub.

'The triads came out to strike us': FRANCE 24's Daniel Quinlan reports on a night of protests in Hong Kong

Hong Kong police said 148 people were arrested during running battles on Monday, the largest daily toll since huge pro-democracy protests kicked off two months ago.

At their press conference, the protesters criticised the city's police force, which they accused of displaying a "total loss of self-discipline [...] and incompetence in carrying out their lawful duties".

They also reiterated the movement's calls for greater democratic freedoms in a city where the leader is chosen by a pro-Beijing committee.

"The pursuit of democracy, liberty and equality is an inalienable right of every citizen. We therefore call on the government to refrain from exterminating our right to pursue these universal values," they said.

Under the terms of the 1997 handover deal with Britain, Hong Kong has rights and liberties unseen on the Chinese mainland, including an independent judiciary and freedom of speech.

But many say those rights are being curtailed.

Beijing’s warning

The protests were triggered by opposition to a planned law that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, but have evolved into a wider movement for democratic reform and the protection of freedoms.

Protesters are now demanding the resignation of city leader Carrie Lam, an independent inquiry into police tactics, an amnesty for those arrested, a permanent withdrawal of the reviled extradition bill, and the right to elect their leaders.

Their defiant press conference came as China’s central government issued one of its strongest-worded warnings yet, declaring that "those who play with fire will perish by it".

China's warning to protesters: Don't mistake restraint for weakness

At a briefing in Beijing, Yang Guang, spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council, said the "radical protests [...] have severely impacted Hong Kong's prosperity and stability, pushing it into a dangerous abyss".

Yang said the government still "firmly supports" both the Hong Kong police force and the city’s embattled leader Lam.

In a strong warning aimed at the more violent "criminals" behind the worst of the unrest, Yang said: "Don't ever misjudge the situation and mistake our restraint for weakness ... Don't ever underestimate the firm resolve and immense strength of the central government."

Yang was speaking at a press conference held by China's cabinet-level State Council in Beijing about the unrest. Such media briefings are normally very rare, but Tuesday's was the second in as many weeks.

The clashes have piled pressure on Chinese President Xi Jinping, and led to speculation that Beijing might be forced to intervene in some capacity, even militarily.

Yang, however, seemed to downplay any idea of mainland police or military helping with law enforcement, saying the Hong Kong government was "fully capable of punishing the violent crime in accordance with the law, restore order to society, and restore stability to society".

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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