Hong Kong's security chief on Wednesday claimed that protesters in the city had been "receiving training from overseas groups," echoing Beijing's "hostile foreign forces" narrative about the ongoing pro-democracy movement.
Secretary for security John Lee told lawmakers: "Judging from the methods used by the rioters [frontline protesters], we definitely believe that they have been trained, and not just here, but they have been trained by people overseas."
But he gave no evidence of any such training activity beyond an assertion that the sophisticated tactics used by protesters to organize and get their message out suggested it must be happening.
"If we look at the methods they use and their publicity and communications, which come out in many different versions, [we see that] there is a different goal or narrative for each one," Lee said.
China's official narrative since anti-extradition protests broadened into wider calls for more democracy and accountability have been to label the protests a pro-independence movement instigated by hostile foreign forces infiltrating Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong government habitually refers to frontline protesters as "rioters," a term often employed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to describe mass, largely peaceful protest movements on the mainland.
However, a recent poll by Reuters found that most of Hong Kong's residents support the five demands of the protest movement, with more than one third of respondents saying they had attended a protest.
Only 30 percent said they were opposed, compared with 59 percent of those polled who supported the movement.
Independent public inquiry
Frontline protesters, journalists and human rights groups say the majority of violence has originated with the Hong Kong police, who have been widely criticized for the excessive use of tear gas, water cannon, pepper spray, as well as both non-lethal and live ammunition weapons on unarmed protesters.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Tuesday wrote to the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam calling for an independent public inquiry into the use of force by police.
"Hong Kong authorities have international legal obligations to investigate alleged abusive police conduct," HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement on the group's website. "They have failed to do so in the face of calls from Hong Kong citizens, legal experts, and rights groups, missing critical opportunities to demonstrate a commitment to human rights and the rule of law."
Police have arrested nearly 7,000 people, and fired more than 16,000 rounds of teargas, 10,000 rubber bullets, 2,000 beanbag rounds, and 1,900 sponge grenades, HRW said.
"An independent commission of inquiry is the first step to addressing the serious human rights violations against protesters since June," Richardson said. "Hong Kong police need to be held accountable to the law – not just to their bosses."
While Lam has formally withdrawn widely hated plans to change Hong Kong's extradition laws, she and her officials have repeatedly ruled out meeting the other four demands for an inquiry into police violence, an end to the use of the term "rioters," an amnesty for arrested protesters and fully democratic elections.
Meanwhile, there are concerns that the government is planning a wider crackdown on dissent in a city that was promised freedoms of speech, association and publication under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, as well as protection from official abuse of power.
Warrantless search of communications device
Joshua Wong, a former student leader of the 2014 Occupy Central movement who was arrested at a protest outside police headquarters last year, said police had submitted evidence to the court that could only have been obtained from his cell phone, which he had refused to hand over or unlock for them.
Lee said police officers are permitted under the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, to exercise a warrantless search of communications devices found on a suspect in "exigent," or urgent circumstances where evidence could otherwise be lost.
While Wong has said that the information submitted in evidence could only have been obtained by hacking into his cell phone, Lee refused to answer questions about how such searches might be achieved when questioned in the Legislative Council (LegCo) on Wednesday.
Wong, like many other peaceful protesters, faces charges of "organizing, inciting, and participating in unauthorized assembly." He has already served jail time for public order offenses linked to his role in the Occupy Central movement.
Hong Kong education officials have also warned that teachers and other school employees found posting content to social media that is supportive of the protests could face sanctions, including the loss of their teacher registration.
The government has yet to specify exactly what sort of social media content could jeopardize a teacher's position, but has said that what teachers do in their spare time will be regarded as part of their professional conduct. Current regulations say teachers may be penalized if they "seem likely" to become involved in criminal proceedings.
Reported by RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.