Hong Kong: Trump urges Xi to talk to protesters as weekend rallies loom

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US president intervenes as Beijing sharpens threat to use force against demonstrators

Police advance through the Sham Shui Po neighbourhood during clashes with anti-extradition bill protesters in Hong Kong
Police advance through the Sham Shui Po neighbourhood during clashes with anti-extradition bill protesters in Hong Kong. Photograph: Thomas Peter/Reuters

US president Donald Trump has said he is “concerned” about the risk of a violent Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong, as the city prepared for another weekend of protests.

Chinese authorities have stepped up rhetoric against protesters in recent days, likening them to terrorists and threatening to use force to end the demonstrations. Large numbers of paramilitary forces have also been moved to the nearby border city of Shenzhen, where they are drilling in a stadium.

Trump said he would urge his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping to sit down with protesters, but admitted that was unlikely. “I know it’s not the kind of thing he does,” he told reporters en route to a campaign rally. Trump had previously described the demonstrations as “riots” that China would need to handle internally.

The popular uprising, initially sparked by a controversial extradition law, has plunged Hong Kong into its worst crisis since the handover from British colonial rule in 1997, with escalating violence on both sides.

Over 700 people have been arrested since the protests began. Many have been injured as police stepped up use of non-lethal weapons, including teargas, rubber bullets and beanbags. A young woman who was hit in the face may lose an eye.

Amnesty International has condemned the police tactics, but protesters also apologised after attacking and tying up two men suspected of being Chinese spies, during a demonstration that shut down the airport for several hours.

A woman holds a placard with a drawing depicting an injured protester
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A woman holds a placard with a drawing depicting an injured protester. Photograph: Miguel Candela/SOPA Images/REX/Shutterstock

Further unrest was expected over the weekend, after police refused permission for several protests. A rally scheduled for Friday night called “Stand with Hong Kong, Power to the People” will go ahead.

But the Civil Human Rights Front, which organised a 2 million-strong march in June, was denied permission to hold another through central Hong Kong on Sunday, and told it can only rally in a park.

The personal authority of Xi, a strongman who has centralised power and extended his mandate indefinitely, is at stake.

The protests come at a particularly sensitive time, with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the communist-ruled People’s Republic of China in October; Beijing does not want nationwide celebrations planned for that day overshadowed.

The political, cultural and economic clout of the Chinese government has been on display as the showdown intensified, with major companies and celebrities coming to the defence of Hong Kong police and authorities.

The resignation of Cathy Pacific CEO Rupert Hogg, effective immediately, came after mounting scrutiny from both Chinese regulators and mainland residents of the role of airline employees in the protest.

The company, 30% owned by Air China, has already fired two pilots for taking part in ‘“illegal” demonstrations and warned others could lose their position if they take part in any “illegal activities”.

“There is no doubt that our brand and reputation are under immense pressure and this pressure has been growing for some weeks, particularly in the all-important market of mainland China,” Hogg said in an email to all employees on Friday.

Positive displays of support for the Hong Kong authorities came from major international firms based there, including Swire and conglomerate Jardine Matheson, which put out a statement saying backed police in “efforts to restore law and order”.

Martial arts icon Jackie Chan also sided with authorities, describing the demonstrations as “sad and depressing”, the South China Morning Post reported. He also claimed he had not heard about June’s 2 million-strong peaceful march.

Chinese-American actress Liu Yifei, who stars in the upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s Mulan, also put out a message on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, saying, “I also support the Hong Kong police,” and sharing a pro-Beijing image.

That decision prompted supporters of the Hong Kong protesters to launch a boycott campaign of the film.