HONG KONG (AP) — China lashed out at Taiwan on Monday over its offer of political asylum to participants in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protest movement, a day after hundreds of thousands of people marched peacefully in the latest massive demonstration in the Chinese territory.
The government of Taiwan, a self-ruled island that China considers its own territory, strongly supports the protests, and Hong Kong students in Taiwan held events over the weekend expressing their backing. Taiwan’s president made the asylum offer last month, though it’s not clear if requests have been received.
Taiwan lacks a formal legal mechanism for assessing and granting asylum requests, although it has granted residency to several vocal opponents of the Chinese government.
On Monday, Ma Xiaoguang, spokesman for the Chinese Cabinet’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said Taiwan’s offer would “cover up the crimes of a small group of violent militants” and encourage their “audacity in harming Hong Kong and turn Taiwan into a “heaven for ducking the law.”
Ma demanded that Taiwan’s government “cease undermining the rule of law” in Hong Kong, cease interfering in its affairs and not “condone criminals.”
Organizers said at least 1.7 million people participated in Sunday’s Hong Kong rally and march, although the police estimate was far lower. Police said the protest was “generally peaceful” but accused a large group of people of “breaching public peace” afterward by occupying a major thoroughfare and using slingshots to shoot “hard objects” at government headquarters and pointing lasers at police officers.
The protests have at times been marked by violent clashes with police, who say they have arrested more than 700 participants since the demonstrations started in June. However, law enforcement officers kept a low profile Sunday, with no riot police seen from the procession’s main routes. When stragglers convened outside a government complex in the late evening, other protesters urged them to go home.
More protests are planned for the coming weeks, with various rallies organized by accountants, transport workers, high school students and relatives of police officers.
Demonstrators’ frustrations over what they perceive to be the government’s refusal to respond to their demands boiled over last week with the occupation of Hong Kong’s international airport, during which a reporter for a Chinese Communist Party-owned newspaper was assaulted, and attacks on a number of police stations.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to Beijing in 1997 under the framework of “one country, two systems,” which promised residents certain democratic rights not afforded to people in mainland China. But some Hong Kongers have accused the Communist Party-ruled central government of eroding their freedoms in recent years.
The protest movement’s demands include the resignation of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, democratic elections and an independent investigation into police use of force.
Asked Sunday about the situation in Hong Kong, U.S. President Donald Trump said the use of Chinese troops to put down the protests — similar to the bloody crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 — would worsen the current U.S.-China trade dispute.
“I mean if it’s another Tiananmen Square, I think it’s a very hard thing to do if there is violence,” Trump told reporters in New Jersey. “I think there’d be tremendous political sentiment not to do something.”
Trump had originally said the protests were a matter for China to handle but has since suggested that Chinese President Xi Jinping could resolve the situation by meeting with protest leaders.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang avoided commenting on Trump’s remarks directly, but referred to the president’s previous statements on the protests.
“We have noticed that President Trump has previously stated that Hong Kong is part of China, and that they must solve it themselves and do not need advice. We hope that the U.S. side can match its acts to its words,” Geng told reporters at a daily briefing.
China has furiously rejected all outside calls for it to discuss protesters’ demands.
Members of China’s paramilitary People’s Armed Police force have been training for days across the border in Shenzhen, including on Sunday morning, fueling speculation that they could be sent in to suppress the protests. The Hong Kong police, however, have said they are capable of handling the demonstrations.
Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.