Beijing offers support for Hong Kong after New Year violence

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s central government firmly supports Hong Kong authorities and police in safeguarding public order and punishing those who break the law, the foreign ministry has said in Beijing’s first reaction to a riot in Hong Kong earlier this week.

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Sixty-four people have been arrested in connection with the violence on Monday, the first day of the Lunar New Year holiday. Protesters hurled bricks at police and set fire to rubbish bins in Mong Kok, a tough, working-class neighborhood just across the harbor from the heart of the Asian financial center.

China’s foreign ministry said in a statement late on Thursday that Hong Kong was a society governed by the rule of law.

“The Chinese central government believes and firmly supports the Hong Kong government and the police in safeguarding social security, protecting Hong Kong residents and their property, and punishing illegal and criminal activities in accordance with the law,” the statement said.

Police fired two warning shots into the air, almost unheard of in the former British colony that reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 and is considered one of Asia’s safest cities. More than 130 people were wounded in the clashes.

The violence has compounded a sense of unease since an “Occupy Central” pro-democracy movement in late 2014 that saw thousands of protesters block major roads, including in Mong Kok, to demand Beijing’s Communist leaders allow full democracy in the city.

Thirty-seven people were charged on Thursday with participating in a “riot”. Three more appeared in court on Friday, including a 15-year-old.

Outside the courthouse, several supporters of the defendants scuffled with a small group of men who held up banners denouncing Monday’s violence.

Hong Kong’s Justice Secretary Rimsky Yuen said the riot charge, rarely used in Hong Kong, was leveled because of what he called the seriousness of the incident. He also said it was a “big test” of the rule of law in the financial hub.

“I think everyone would agree that unlawful violence would not be the appropriate way to express one’s political demands and one’s political motives,” Yuen told reporters.

He said authorities would consider pressing more charges in coming weeks after examining more evidence.

At least one of those charged in connection with the riot belongs to a group called Hong Kong Indigenous, one of a cluster of outspoken groups calling for greater Hong Kong autonomy and even independence from China, the group said.

China’s Foreign Ministry said the riot was “plotted mainly by a local radical separatist organization”.

“The violence quickly subsided as the Hong Kong police took effective measures in a professional manner with restraint and in accordance with the law,” the statement said.

(Story refiles to fix typographical error to “appeared”, not “speared”, in paragraph 7)

Reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING and James Pomfret in HONG KONG; Editing by Paul Tait