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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong's violent turn tests Beijing's patience

Police fired warning shot and deployed water cannons for the first time

Protesters face police during a clash in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong, on Sunday.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- A violent turn in anti-government protests in Hong Kong is testing the Chinese government's patience as Beijing steps up its propaganda campaign against protesters in the territory.

On the twelfth straight weekend of protests, police on Sunday for the first time deployed water cannons to disperse crowds, and an officer fired a warning shot into the sky while being chased by club-wielding protesters.

During an approved march in the New Territories town of Tsuen Wan on Sunday, some hard-core protesters blocked roads, and hurled bricks and petrol bombs at police. After smashing the glass gates of a mahjong parlor, they chased and used metal poles to beat officers who came to stop them. After the warning shot, three officers pointed guns at protesters.

Some 86 people were arrested over the weekend, with the youngest just 12 years old.

The territory's largest political crisis is showing no sign of ending, and has now lasted 79 days -- equaling the duration of the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy protests. Those demonstrations to press for universal suffrage died down after the movement failed to move Beijing.

The Hong Kong government has continued to ignore protester demands despite promises of open dialogue, and analysts fear this could prompt more radical moves from both sides.

A commentary published in the official Xinhua News Agency on Sunday quoted Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese paramount leader who coined the "one country, two systems" framework, saying "if there is a riot [in Hong Kong] the central government will intervene."

"It's not only the authority of the central government, but also its responsibility," the Xinhua commentary said.

Troops from the People's Armed Police have been moving into Shenzhen, a mainland city that borders Hong Kong. Chinese media has also being playing up the threat of military intervention.

Willy Lam, a political commentator and adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the return to violence will fuel Beijing's propaganda campaign against protesters. This will also provide justification if the central government decides to directly intervene, he said.

Police officers point their guns toward protesters in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong, on Sunday.   © Reuters

"The high level of force they used against the police and the destruction of public property might result in the tide of public opinion turning against [the protesters]," Lam said.

Lam fears that authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong are waiting for the patience of the general public to run out with frustrated protesters stepping up their use of force.

"Then they will make more arrests and scare the rest," he said.

The first violence in more than a week came after an estimated 1.7 million people joined a peaceful march the previous weekend. This was followed by more than 20,000 people creating a 60-kilometer human chain across the city on Friday.

After that first tear gas-free weekend in more than two months, Chief Executive Carrie Lam last week promised to established a platform for dialogue between the government and citizens. She has since met dozens of prominent public figures including ex-officials, business heavyweights and university heads to discuss how to set up such a platform, public broadcaster RTHK reported.

Ma Ngok, associate professor in government and public administration at Chinese University of Hong Kong, said many protesters were irritated that only members of the pro-establishment camp were included in the conversations.

"Given the depth of the current political crisis, she is only at the stage of discussing how to set up the platform. Many protesters think it's too slow," Ma said. "The violent turn shows that what Carrie Lam did last week was little help in solving the crisis."

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