China: US Fanning Flames of HK Protest

HONG KONG (AP) -- The U.S. and other Western nations are "fanning the flames" of street protests in Hong Kong that aim to undermine the semi-autonomous region's prosperity, stability and security, China's top diplomat told state media Friday.

State Councilor Yang Jiechi's accusations came as police reported the arrests of eight protesters on suspicion of possessing offensive weapons and other charges.

Yang claimed the Western governments were arranging meetings between top officials and protest leaders and encouraging them in actions.

"It must be pointed out that the U.S. and some other Western governments .... are constantly fanning the flames of the situation in Hong Kong," Yang was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency. "China expresses its strong indignation and firm opposition ... and demands they immediately cease interfering in Hong Kong affairs in any form."

Yang's remarks follow statements earlier this week by a former Hong Kong official that the U.S. and self-governing democratic Taiwan were behind the unrest, sparked originally by Hong Kong's now-suspended attempt to push through legislation that could send criminal suspects to mainland China.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other Chinese officials and diplomats have made similar accusations, while the head of the police union was quoted by Chinese media on Friday as calling for an investigation into the alleged U.S. role in the protests.

Asked for details on the Chinese allegations, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Friday pointed to what she called "irresponsible statements" by U.S. politicians and meetings between Hong Kong opposition figures and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

"We believe the U.S. owes China and the world an explanation," Hua told reporters at a daily briefing.

Pompeo this week described the claim of an American guiding hand directing the protests as "ludicrous on its face."

"I think the protests are solely the responsibility of the people of Hong Kong, and I think they are the ones that are demanding that their government listen to them and hear their voices," Pompeo said.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing followed that up on Friday with a statement saying, "We categorically reject the charge of foreign forces as being behind the protests."

"It is not credible to think millions of people are being manipulated to stand for a free and open society," the statement said.

However, asked about the protests on Thursday, President Donald Trump echoed Beijing in labeling them "riots" and indicated the U.S. would stay out of a matter he considered to be "between Hong Kong and China."

Western governments and rights organizations have consistently issued statements expressing concern about the extradition bill — which could expose suspects to torture and unfair trials in China — and violence between police and protesters. Beijing has told them to stop intefering, saying Hong Kong matters were purely a Chinese affair.

Beijing has a long history of blaming unrest on shadowy foreign anti-China forces, including in the 1989 pro-democracy protests centered on Beijing's Tiananmen Square that were bloodily suppressed by the military, and during an earlier round of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014. That feeds into a narrative widely followed by mainland Chinese that the West and especially America is trying to contain and suppress their country's rise to economic and diplomatic prominence by sowing internal social and political discord.

Protesters plan to return to the streets again this weekend, angered by the government's refusal to answer their demands, violent tactics used by police — possibly in coordination with organized crime figures — and the arrest of 44 people this week on rioting charges, which carry a maximum penalty of 10 years imprisonment.

In the latest action, hundreds of finance worker participated in Hong Kong flash mob Thursday night, chanting "Hong Kong keep going" and calling for support for a city-wide strike planned for Monday

Two demonstrations by civil servants and workers in the medical and health care sector were also planned for Friday evening.

A former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 on the principle of "one country, two systems." The framework promises Hong Kong certain democratic freedoms not afforded to the mainland. In recent years, however, Hong Kong residents have complained that Beijing is increasingly encroaching on their freedoms, providing an undercurrent of distrust to the protest movement, especially among students and young workers.

China is especially sensitive to social movements developing into "color revolutions" of the type that toppled governments in other parts of the world.

As the movement has progressed, both protesters and police have at times resorted to violence. In response to questions about whether the army will be sent in to handle demonstrators, Chinese officials have pointed to an article in Hong Kong's Garrison Law stating that troops already stationed in the city can be deployed at the request of the Hong Kong government.

Those arrested Thursday night included Andy Chan, founder of the now-banned Hong Kong National Party.

Police said they arrested seven men and one woman aged 24-31 and found materials including a suspected petrol bomb and materials for making others, two bows and six arrows, a pair of baseball bats, a bag of ball bearings, communication equipment and protective helmets and masks commonly used by protesters.

The arrests drew a crowd of protesters to the police station to demand their release. The station's metal outer shutters were subsequently vandalized.

(KR)