Chinese police remind students to ‘love your country’ in warning over Hong Kong protests

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Originally published by The Telegraph in August 30, 2019

Chinese police are warning mainland students enrolled in university programs in Hong Kong to stay away from “illegal mass protests and street violence,” The Telegraph can reveal, as authorities try to suppress the unrest.

Students received text message alerts from local police this week that said “please stand firm on the position, ‘love the country, love Hong Kong,’ and by no means should you participate in any form of illegal assemblies, marches or demonstrations.”

The notice added: “Take care of your personal safety and remember to strictly abide by China’s national laws and regulations, and local Hong Kong laws,” suggesting students keep close contact with the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong.

The messages, viewed by The Telegraph, popped up on phones as Chinese students prepared to return to Hong Kong for the fall semester and ahead of another weekend of mass demonstrations, which have largely been youth-driven

A citywide strike is also planned for early next week, with protest organisers calling on university and secondary school students to boycott the first day of classes. 

“The true purpose [for the alerts] is so Chinese authorities can send a warning to mainlanders that police know they are in Hong Kong,” said Frances Eve, a researcher for the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders , a coalition of rights groups. 

“Threats are implicit, because mainland citizens know they won’t have protection from the wrath of the Chinese Communist Party once they cross the invisible red line,” Ms Eve said. “If they get involved in the demonstrations, they or their families back home could face reprisals.”

China has issued increasingly ominous threats of a forceful crackdown as protests continue. The demonstrations represent the biggest political crisis in the former British colony since Beijing resumed control in 1997. 

They’re also a public affront to Xi Jinping, head of the ruling Communist Party, at a delicate moment – in a few weeks, China will celebrate 70 years of party rule, a time when elite leadership typically values stability above all else.

Border officials have stepped up checks, detaining and interrogating people travelling between Hong Kong and the mainland, searching through photos and apps on phones and laptops, as well as physical belongings. Chinese activists with links to Hong Kong and the protests have also been subject to interrogation and detention in recent weeks, and some have been placed under house arrest.

China sent a new batch of air, land and maritime forces to Hong Kong on Thursday, describing it as a “routine annual rotation.” State media, however, warned that if violence continued, the troops “will have no reason to sit on their hands.”

Police again rejected protest organisers’ plans to hold a large march through city streets to China’s representative office in Hong Kong on Saturday; last month, activists defaced the building. A police ban, however, is unlikely to keep protesters at home, many of whom are enraged by the government’s lack of concessions. 

Protesters first took to the streets in early June against an extradition proposal that would have sent suspects to face trial in mainland China, where Communist Party influence contributes to a 99.9 percent conviction rate.

Although city leaders suspended the bill, protesters have continued to call for its formal withdrawal to prevent it from being tabled and passed quickly in the future. Demands have since expanded to include an independent inquiry of police response during protests, direct leadership elections, and the resignation of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive. 

Many also say freedoms are fast-eroding in Hong Kong under Communist Party control, even though liberties are guaranteed for at least 50 years under an agreement that kicked in when the territory was returned to China.

All mainland Chinese students approached by the Telegraph for this story declined to be interviewed, even on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the protests. Some, however, shared the messages received from local authorities.

“I imagine a lot of them are taking these messages seriously,” said Ms Eve. “Chinese police have repeatedly shown they will resort to collective punishment against families, or hold families in the mainland hostage to prevent some people from speaking out.”

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