China calls on police to guard ‘southern gate’ as Hong Kong leader eyes emergency powers

China’s public security chief has called on the country’s police officers to guard its "southern gate" and be ready to crack down on "violent and terrorist activities” as anti-government protests rage on in Hong Kong.

Forces must be vigilant against anything that could “infiltrate, subvert, or sabotage the country,” urged Zhang Kezhi, the minister of public security, on a visit this week to a police station in the southern province of Guangdong, which borders Hong Kong. 

Officers must “firmly safeguard the ‘southern gate’ of our national political security,” he said, alluding to the crisis in Hong Kong without directly mentioning the ongoing demonstrations. 

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China has escalated its rhetoric as the unrest continues, issuing ominous warnings that paramilitary forces in a city next to Hong Kong are ready to deploy to suppress the protests. Doing so, however, would be reminiscent of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 when the Chinese military opened fire at peaceful student demonstrators.

Mr Zhang’s comments come as Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam refused to rule out the possibility of invoking emergency powers, saying she would look at all legal means to "stop violence and chaos" in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. 

The ordinance provides for the city’s leader to assume near-absolute authority to “make any regulations whatsoever which he [or she] may consider desirable in the public interest”.

It would not need approval from city lawmakers, and would grant Ms Lam sweeping powers, including censorship and suppression of publications and communications; arrests, detentions and deportations; control over ports and all transport; the appropriation of property; and authorising the entry and search of premises, with life imprisonment as the maximum penalty for offences under the emergency ordinance. 

Mass protests kicked off early June against a now-suspended extradition bill that would have sent suspects to face trial in mainland China where Communist Party influence of courts leads to a 99.9 per cent conviction rate. 

But protesters continue to demand the formal withdrawal to prevent the proposal from being passed quickly after demonstrations end. Calls have also expanded to include an independent inquiry into police action, the resignation of Ms Lam and direct leadership elections. 

Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific fired staff who attended protests, under pressure from BeijingCredit:
Vincent Yu/AP

Beijing has also put the squeeze on companies to warn them against siding with protesters. For some, that has meant making a series of staffing changes. Cathay Pacific was rocked recently by the surprise resignation of its CEO – widely seen as an attempt to curry political favour with Beijing as it piled pressure on the Hong Kong airline following the arrest of a pilot at a protest. 

Ryan Lo says he was fired two weeks ago after six years with Hong Kong Airlines over his anti-government political views. 

“People around me to a certain extent are scared, but as Hong Kongers, we cannot be too scared – otherwise, our speech and point of views will disappear,” he said at a protest on Wednesday. “I hope that [companies] will think twice before terminating their valuable staff.

A few thousand people also turned out for a separate protest over claims that police have sexually assaulted and harassed detained female demonstrators. 

K Wong, a 28-year old-woman attending the rally with four friends who asked to be identified by her first initial, told The Telegraph that alleged sexual assault cases were "absolutely unacceptable".

"Police are who we are supposed to go to if a sexual assault case happens. They are supposed to be protecting us in those events," she said, adding that she did not feel safe when officers were present.

Police representatives have dismissed such reports as "online rumours".

Hong Kong police have arrested more than 880 people since mass demonstrations began early June, formally charging around 140. About 200 police officers have been injured. 

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