China's top state media has said for the first time that a return to peace is a prerequisite for holding any "fair elections" in Hong Kong, while also voicing support for a harsher police crackdown on the city's unrest.
The morning after one of the most violent days in Hong Kong's months-long anti-government movement, Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily gave its staunch backing to the city's police force, demanding it to be given more support to put down unrest "more effectively and forcefully".
Tuesday's online commentary also went on to suggest that an end to violence was necessary for the city to hold its district council elections, which are expected to take place in less than two weeks, on November 24.
"Only by supporting the police force decisively putting down the riots can (Hong Kong) return to peace and hold fair elections, to help Hong Kong start again," the commentary said.
Concerns that the Hong Kong government might postpone the elections, amid violent attacks on candidates and protest-related vandalism, are rife in the run-up to the event.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho Kwan-yiu was stabbed last Wednesday during a campaign event in Tuen Mun by a man posing as a supporter. Ho, who is running in the Lok Tsui constituency of Tuen Mun, was discharged from hospital after treatment.
Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit, leader of the pro-democracy Civil Human Rights Front " the group responsible for some of the largest peaceful protest marches in Hong Kong " was attacked twice in less than two months, most recently in October when at least four assailants smashed him in the head with hammers and spanners.
In addition to his activism, Sham is contesting a seat in the district council elections, at Lek Yuen in Sha Tin.
This year's elections have seen a soar in voter registration to record levels, with the pro-Beijing camp facing the potential for heavy losses amid widespread public anger towards the government's handling of the political crisis.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at a press briefing on Tuesday morning that her government would "do its best" to hold fair and safe elections.
"As of today, we still really hope to be able to hold this election, and we'll do our best. The right to vote of four million people needs to be respected and defended," Lam told reporters.
"But, of course, there is the question of safety and order, so the government has to work hard to meet these requirements," she added, refusing to give a deadline for when the decision would be made on whether such requirements were met.
The People's Daily commentary came one day after a police officer shot a protester with a live round in the abdomen on Monday morning, leaving the 21-year-old in critical condition and igniting outrage across the city.
A Hong Kong police spokesman later said the officer at the time "believed it was very likely that the revolver would be snatched and the consequences would be disastrous".
The People's Daily article backed the shooting, saying the officer "had no choice but to open fire" and calling the move "reasonable and legal".
"In the face of the real threats of continuously escalating violence, the Hong Kong government has every right to use whatever necessary means granted by existing laws to deal with the street violence instigated by the opposition and radical forces," it said.
"Meanwhile, it should double down on support for the police force, explore more effective means of law enforcement and provide it with more adequate equipment to carry out more effective and harsher crackdown on the riots."
The comments are in line with a key party directive passed at a recent meeting of the party's central leadership, which vowed to support Hong Kong to "strengthen law enforcement power".
Tian Feilong, an expert on Hong Kong affairs at Beihang University in Beijing, said the People's Daily commentary highlighted the Hong Kong police should not only be responsible for maintaining social order, but also election order.
He added that under the framework of "one country, two systems" there was "much space for cooperation" between the central government and Hong Kong's police force.
"(Hong Kong police) needs the guidance from the state and the central leadership, including equipment and technical support," he said.
The party's Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, Beijing's top body on law enforcement and judiciary, also threw its weight behind the Hong Kong police in an article published on late Monday on its social media account.
"The Hong Kong rioter attacked the police and attempted to grab the gun. If (the officer) does not open fire at this moment, what's the use of the gun? What's the use of police?" it said, claiming the discharge of the firearm "met international standards".
Additional reporting by Echo Xie
Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.