China reiterates support for Hong Kong's embattled leader

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The pro-democracy protests in semi-autonomous Hong Kong are a major challenge to Beijing's authority

China's ruling Communist Party once again underlined its wholesale support for Hong Kong's embattled leader on Tuesday as she struggles to contain increasingly violent anti-government unrest.

The two-month crisis has become the biggest threat to Beijing's rule of the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city since its handover from the British in 1997.

One of the protesters' key demands is for Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to stand down.

But, a day after a series of rallies that included bloody clashes between protesters and pro-government men brandishing poles, the Communist Party's mouthpiece published a front-page commentary in Beijing defending Lam.

"All kinds of evildoing go beyond peaceful demonstrations. No civilisation or society governed by law will tolerate this," said the commentary in the People's Daily.

"The (party's) central committee has full confidence in chief executive Carrie Lam and fully affirms her work."

Officials from China's cabinet-level State Council were also due to hold a press conference on Tuesday afternoon in Beijing about the unrest.

Such media briefings are normally very rare but Tuesday's will be the second in as many weeks.

The demonstrations were triggered by opposition to a planned law that would have allowed extraditions of criminals to mainland China.

They evolved into a wider movement for democratic reform and a halt to eroding freedoms, with protesters' anger fuelled by Lam's refusal to publicly acknowledge their grievances.

In a press conference, Lam on Monday warned the city was nearing a "very dangerous situation" as she framed the protests as a challenge to China's sovereignty.

"I dare say they are trying to destroy Hong Kong," said Lam, who was appointed by a pro-Beijing committee.

Shortly after Lam spoke, protesters took to the streets across the city in the most widespread day of unrest since the crisis began.

The protests also saw the first major brawl between protesters and pro-government men, raising the spectre of violent divides opening within Hong Kong society.

In dramatic scenes filmed by local media, the rival groups fought each other using poles and street signs.

Previously the unrest has mostly involved police firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters, who have thrown rocks and other projectiles.

The protests on Monday also involved the most impactful civil disobedience effort from the protesters.

A strike paralysed the subway system during morning peak hour, led many shops to close and delayed scores of international flights.

The South China Morning Post, an English-language daily newspaper in Hong Kong, expressed growing concerns across the city about the crisis with a front-page headline Tuesday.

"City gripped by anarchy," the headline said.

Under the terms of the 1997 handover deal with Britain, Hong Kong has rights and liberties unseen on the Chinese mainland, including an independent judiciary and freedom of speech.

But many say those rights are being curtailed, citing the disappearance into mainland custody of dissident booksellers, the disqualification of prominent politicians and the jailing of pro-democracy protest leaders.

Public anger has been compounded by rising inequality and the perception that the city's distinct language and culture are being threatened by ever-closer integration with the Chinese mainland.