(VOA's Erin Hale and Richard Green contributed to this story.)
BEIJING — Beijing is working feverishly to lay claim to the moral high ground as a debate over a law in Hong Kong that would allow extradition to China has triggered massive protests and violent clashes between police and protesters.
As it puts it support squarely behind Hong Kong’s increasingly embattled leader Carrie Lam, censors in China are working overtime to scrub the Internet and social media of any discussion of the rallies and the fierce debate the extradition law has triggered.
In Hong Kong there is deep mistrust and concerns about rule of law in authoritarian China where any individual who is perceived as a threat to the state or Communist Party can be silenced, disappeared or sent to jail.
In China, discussion of such cases is largely silenced, but in Hong Kong they are openly discussed, analyzed and criticized. Under the so-called “one-country two systems” model, Hong Kong was promised to be able to keep its independent legal system and freedoms when the former British colony was returned to China in 1997.
But aggressive steps by Beijing in recent years to halt the expansion of democracy and now a law that opponents believe could make anyone a target of Chinese suppression has raised concerns those promises are rapidly eroding.
China has criticized the protests, focusing on the incidents of violence and broader impact on society as well as the legality of the public pushback.
Protests on Sunday prompted nearly one million to take to the streets and drew in protesters from all walks of life, from housewives to students, lawyers and business people. Wednesday, protesters flooded Hong Kong streets forcing the shutdown of government headquarters and the Legislative Council.
Later, officers wearing helmets and carrying shields fired tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray to push back protesters, some of whom overturned barricades and threw objects at police.
Those on the scene say police were much more aggressive during this round of protests than during the Umbrella Movement in 2014. The South China Morning Post reports police have fired 150 rounds of tear gas, several rubber bullets and 20 rounds of beanbags.
During the Umbrella Movement, student led protesters occupied the heart of Hong Kong for more than two months demanding the direct election of the port city’s chief executive. Ultimately those protests ended without any government concessions.
Following the clashes Wednesday, hospital authorities say at least 72 people were injured.
State sized actor
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang has condemned the violence.
"I think any behavior that undermines the prosperity and stability is opposed by the mainstream public opinion of Hong Kong,” Geng said. “No civilized society ruled by law would tolerate these illegal actions which destroy the peace and disregard the law."
But at the same time Geng said he did not know anything about a reported “state actor-sized” cyber-attack on the popular encrypted messaging service Telegram.
In a post on Twitter, Telegram's CEO Pavel Durov said the service was hit by a “powerful DDoS attack” that originated mostly from IP addresses in China. Durov said historically all attacks of the same size and scale had coincided with protests in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s government has stressed the extradition law is needed to address loopholes for the gravest of crimes. It has also argued that it strengthens rule of law. Since the controversial bill was introduced in January, the number of crimes where extradition could be applied have been reduced from 46 to 37 categories of crimes.
The threshold has also been set at crimes with a punishment of seven years or more.
But that is not the biggest concern on the minds of critics of the bill, it is China’s historic abuses of the rule of law, persistent problems of torture in custody and the use of extralegal means. China’s leadership has also repeatedly noted it is the party that is above the law. In Xi Jinping’s China, corruption investigations are handled first by the party and then handed over to prosecutors.
Even the country’s top judge Zhou Qiang, president of the Supreme People’s Court, has urged judges to reject Western ideas of judicial independence.
One legal-rights activist in China who wished remain anonymous says it appears the debate over the extradition law is a legal dispute, what it really shows is the negative view people in Hong Kong have of the Chinese legal system.
Despite pledges the law is for serious and economic crimes, “clearly this is something that could be used to target those they (the party) are not pleased with and want to suppress, such as political crimes, and those religious and rights cases,” the lawyer says. “What has happened on the mainland innumerable times validates this.”
Another noted Beijing's response to the pushback shows the Communist Party’s leadership is again grossly misreading their target group.
“The policy steps taken towards Hong Kong have only managed to galvanize opposition to the CCP and strengthen Hong Kongers own identity, the very opposite of the CCPs goal,” says Peter Dahlin, director of Safeguard Defenders, a group supporting human rights defenders.