HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong's leader has claimed that "external forces" are participating in student-led pro-democracy protests that have occupied parts of this financial capital for more than three weeks, but provided no evidence to back his accusation.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's statement in a televised interview Sunday was the first time he has alleged foreign involvement in the unrest, echoing accusations by China's central government, which also has not backed them with any evidence. Leung's statement comes just before his government is scheduled to hold talks with student leaders on Tuesday.
When asked on the "Newsline" program about a Chinese official's comments on outside involvement, Leung said, "There is obviously participation by people, organizations from outside of Hong Kong." Leung added that the foreign actors came from "different countries in different parts of the world," but didn't specify which countries.
On Monday, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei repeated the charges without specifying who was inciting the protesters.
"Everybody has seen the fact that some people and some forces from the outside are indeed making attempts at interfering in Hong Kong's affairs in order to affect Hong Kong's development, and the fact that they have gone so far as to encourage, instigate and support illegal activities such as Occupy Central," Hong said.
The Hong Kong Federation of Students immediately rejected the accusations, with Secretary General Alex Chow saying Leung was "just making it up."
"He's the chief executive, he's an accountable official," Chow told reporters. "If he's putting forward these accusations, then we hope he also puts forward the evidence. But he shouldn't just say that foreign powers are meddling without evidence."
Protesters, mostly young college students, are pressing for a greater say in choosing the semiautonomous Chinese city's leader in an inaugural direct election, promised by Beijing for 2017. They oppose Beijing's ruling that a committee protesters say is stacked with pro-Beijing elites should screen candidates in the election. That effectively means that Beijing can vet candidates before they go to a public vote.
In what has almost become a daily pattern, the police have tried to drive away the students from some streets during the night, only to see them regroup and occupy the areas and resume their sit-ins. The protests stretched into their fourth week Monday with thousands of demonstrators camped out in downtown Hong Kong and two other sites in this city of 7.2 million.
After two nights of violent clashes, protesters and police settled into an uneasy peace in the densely commercial Mong Kok district after two pro-democracy legislators, Fernando Chiu and Claudia Mo, arrived late Sunday night and helped calm tensions.
Earlier Sunday, police spokesman Steve Hui said an unnamed 23-year-old was arrested on the charge of accessing a computer "with criminal or dishonest intent" and unlawful assembly. Hui said the suspect had "incited others on an online forum to join the unlawful assembly in Mong Kok, to charge at police and to paralyze the railways."
It was the first arrest for online protest activity since the demonstrations began, and Hui said Monday police could arrest others caught engaged in similar activity.
"If we have enough evidence, we will immediately carry out an arrest operation," Hui said.
The arrest raised concerns among human rights activists that police have so far refused to disclose the substance of the suspect's posts or say who revealed the man's identity and location to investigators.
The Hong Kong newspaper Sun Daily, which takes a pro-establishment editorial line, said the man had called on protesters to block railway lines and to "try to force police to use force." The newspaper did not reveal its sources for the information.
Maya Wang, a China researcher with the watchdog group Human Rights Watch, said it was still unclear whether the suspect was actually inciting others to violence or simply voicing support for peaceful protest.
"There clearly are some concerns about the impacts it could have on free speech," Wang said. "The police would have to explain what the post actually says and how it contravenes the law."