With Hong Kong divided, Beijing tries new tactic to discredit protest movement

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Hong Kong (CNN)It has become a war of attrition. Ahead of the tenth consecutive weekendof protests in Hong Kong, neither the government nor demonstrators are giving an inch of ground.

But what of the residents who find themselves caught between the two sides, their neighborhoods wracked by tear gas, barricades and weekly violent clashes?

Since June 9, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens have come out to support the protests and voice their dissatisfaction with the city’s government and its policies.

As recently as last weekend, families and older citizens had joined rallies to show their support. But there has been concern over whether escalating acts of violence, including the trashing of Hong Kong’s government headquarters, have undermined this backing.

It is this potential “silent majority” that Beijing is hoping to connect with as part of a new tactic experts say is intended to discredit anti-government protesters and bolster support for mainland China.

At a press conference in Beijing on Tuesday, a spokesman for China’s top Hong Kong policy office divided the protest movement into two groups.

“At the front are a small number of violent radicals; in the middle are some kind-hearted citizens who have been misguided and coerced to join,” said Yang Guang, spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office.

Speaking to reporters, Yang emphasized the economic and societal damage caused to Hong Kong by the protests and urged citizens to “stand firm and guard our beautiful homeland.”

“Let’s do as a loving mother does to take the inexplicably angry child home,” he said, adding that the protests had gone way beyond the freedom of assembly and expression that Hong Kong is permitted.

Popular support?

Although there is no clear indication that support for the demonstrators is wavering, experts said that the Chinese government will be hoping that the protesters’ recent attacks on public property and transport systems, as well as their frequent clashes with police, will steadily estrange them from the rest of the city.

“They’re appealing to the moderate, conservative middle-aged people — parents who are afraid of their kids breaking the law, getting arrested and ruining their futures,” said Ma Ngok, an associate professor of Hong Kong politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Yet Ma said that while Beijing was attempting to tie the protests to radical separatist elements in the city, it was violence by police against demonstrators which was more damaging to public perceptions.

“The police action in the last week or so has invited a lot of resistance from average people, people in the communities, not even young protesters,” he said. “So far I haven’t actually seen a massive backlash against the protests.”

But the ongoing unrest is starting to hurt. In the past week the city’s stock market has fallen to its lowest point in eight months, dropping almost 10% in a month. Many average Hong Kong citizens invest in the stock market, and many more have their retirement funds tied to the Hang Seng Index.

“Members of the silent majority don’t support the extradition bill, but nonetheless they want life to return to normal,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and a longtime analyst of Chinese politics, in reference to the now shelved bill that sparked that initial protests.

He said Beijing thought that by stonewalling the protesters, they would become more frustrated and infuriated — leading to increasingly radical acts which the Chinese government hoped would estrange more and more Hong Kongers.

“Beijing hopes that eventually, after a few more weekends of bloody confrontation, public opinion may turn against the radical protesters,” he said.

Don’t mistake our restraint for weakness’

Speaking on Tuesday, an unofficial representative for the protest movement accused the police again of unnecessary violence and said the government was distorting the actions of demonstrators.

“The public seeks the government’s direct response to the five major demands of the people, rather than blaming the civil movement for disturbing the economy,” the statement said.

But in its press conference later in the day, Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office focused squarely on the economic impact of the protests, making it clear the situation couldn’t be allowed to continue.

“We would like to make it clear to the very small group of unscrupulous and violent criminals and the dirty forces behind them — those who play with fire will perish by it,” spokesman Yang said.

“Don’t ever misjudge the situation and mistake our restraint for weakness.”

Beijing’s uncompromising statements, including rare remarks from Beijing’s military garrison commander in Hong Kong, have sparked concerns and rumors that the Chinese government might deploy military police or troops to control the situation.

In a video posted by the Global Times of police drills in Shenzhen, the mainland city bordering Hong Kong, dozens of police were seen taking on a group of protesters dressed similarly to the Hong Kong demonstrators.

As the government has refused to budge on protester demands, Chinese state-run media has ramped up its rhetoric against the demonstrators.

It only worsened after Hong Kong protesters twice threw the Chinese national flag into Victoria Harbor in the major shopping district of Tsim Sha Tsui, provoking fury on the mainland.

In an editorial Monday, state-run news agency Xinhua said “the bottom line of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ brooks no challenge,” referring to the special legal structure under which Hong Kong is governed.

Xinhua said throwing the flag into Victoria Harbor was “an unforgivable, lawless act that has blatantly offended the national dignity, is an insult to all Chinese people.”

CNN’s Steven Jiang contributed to this article.

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