China's President Xi Jinping has called for an end to violence in Hong Kong, in strongly worded comments that coincide with the second protest related death in a week in the semi-autonomous city.
Speaking on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Brazil on Thursday, Xi said that ongoing "radical" protests had trampled the city's rule of law and that "stopping the violence and restoring order" was Hong Kong's most "urgent task."
The Asian financial hub has been gripped by a renewed spate of violent unrest in recent days, following the death of a 22-year-old student who fell near the scene of demonstrations last Friday. Protesters have clashed with riot police at multiple locations, paralyzing much of the territory and forcing citywide school cancellations.
In his remarks Thursday, Xi pledged his support for the city's police authorities and its embattled leader Carrie Lam "in severely punishing the violent criminals in accordance with the law." The rare comments by Xi came just hours before a 70-year-old man who was struck by a brick during clashes between protesters and their opponents died of his injuries.
The unidentified elderly man died late on Thursday night at the city's Prince of Wales Hospital, a spokesperson confirmed. According to police, the man was on a lunch break from his job as a cleaner on Wednesday when he voluntarily began clearing the road of bricks thrown during demonstrations. Video of the alleged incident provided by police shows protesters and government supporters hurling bricks at one another before a man falls to the ground.
The death of the man is likely to further raise tensions in the protest-wracked city. On Friday office workers dressed in smart business attire took to the streets for the fifth day in a row in Central district, home to some of the city's largest blue chip companies. Elsewhere in the city, student protesters continued their occupation of several university campuses, effectively barricading themselves inside the grounds, while stockpiling weapons such as cross bows and petrol bombs.
Earlier in the week, a protester was shot by police and a man was set on fire following a dispute with protesters. A 15-year-old boy who was struck on the head by what is believed to be a tear gas canister is also in critical condition, according to Hong Kong's Hospital Authority.
Speaking at a press conference on Friday, Hong Kong Police spokesperson Tse Chun-Chung said that police were in "reactive mode" and if the protesters didn't commit violent acts, authorities wouldn't have to respond.
"Hong Kong has become very sick over the past 5 months. I cannot imagine what our future looks like," he said.
The violence has since spread to other countries. According to the government, Hong Kong's secretary for justice, Teresa Cheng, was injured in the UK capital on Thursday after she was surrounded by a protesters.
"The secretary immediately made a report to the London police and requested the police to take the case seriously and put the culprits to justice," the government said.
On Thursday, China's top state-run television channel issued an online editorial telling protesters their actions are "undisguised terrorism."
"We have had enough talking, persuasion and warnings. To stop the unrest has to be implemented and advanced more resolutely now. The country will never accept the situation to be out of control, justice to be covered or Hong Kong to be sunk," the editorial from CCTV read.
It echoed an editorial in the state-run tabloid Global Times suggesting the People's Armed Police and the People's Liberation Army were ready to back up Hong Kong's government "when necessary."
"We also warn the radical protesters: You are on the edge of doom. Those who are coerced to be 'valiant' should walk away as soon as possible when you still can make the call," the editorial said.
However, it is not clear if Beijing has a red line, and what it would take for protesters to cross it before provoking a Chinese military response.
The US China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC), which is responsible for monitoring US-China relations from a security perspective, made a number of Hong Kong proposals in its annual report in light of what it described as the city's "historic 2019 protest movement."
In the event of a military intervention, the report recommended that the 1992 US Hong Kong Policy Act be suspended, which would remove the city's special trading status.