The head of China’s cabinet office responsible for Hong Kong has said the territory is facing its “most severe situation” since the handover from British rule in 1997.

Zhang Xiaoming spoke about the crisis at a seminar in the mainland city of Shenzhen, attended by Hong Kong residents.

He said the central government is “highly concerned” over two months of daily street protests against the administration of the city’s chief executive Carrie Lam, and is considering further measures.

Hong Kong protests
A man carries an umbrella – a symbol of recent pro-democracy protests – and wears a face mask ahead of a fresh protest (AP)

The protests are becoming increasingly violent and having “an increasingly broad impact on society”, Mr Zhang told the 500 seminar attendees, who included members of the Hong Kong and central government legislative and advisory bodies.

Hong Kong was returned to China from British rule under the framework of “one country, two systems”, which promised the city political, civil and economic freedoms not allowed under Communist Party rule on the mainland.

However, many Hong Kong residents feel Beijing has been increasingly encroaching on their freedoms, fuelling the protests set off by proposed extradition legislation.

The protests were triggered by proposed extradition legislation that, if passed, would have allowed some criminal suspects to be sent to China, where critics say they could face possible torture and unfair trials.

Hong Kong protests
A policeman moves traffic cones as lawyers walk during a silent protest march (AP)

China so far has not visibly intervened in the situation, though in editorials and statements from officials it has condemned demonstrators and protest organisers as criminals, clowns and “violent radicals”, and alleged that they have inflamed by politicians from the US, Taiwan and elsewhere.

Speculation that the military could be deployed grew after Chinese officials pointed to an article in Hong Kong law that allows troops already stationed in the city to help with “public order maintenance” at the Hong Kong government’s request.

Hong Kong authorities have said they do not anticipate any need to bring in troops or police from China to help impose order.

Protesters have been drawn from all professions and age groups.

On Wednesday, several hundred lawyers sought a meeting with secretary of justice Teresa Cheng, and staged a silent protest.

Hong Kong protests
The central Chinese government has taken a sterner line over protests in recent days, and warned of consequences for demonstrators (AP)

Authorities have refused to open a dialogue with protesters and there was no immediate response from Ms Cheng’s office.

Margaret Ng, a lawyer and a former lawmaker, said they wanted to meet Ms Cheng and the director of public prosecution to seek an assurance that there was no political motive in prosecution of those people who had been detained in the protests.

Some 500 people have been arrested since the demonstrations began in June and dozens have already been charged with rioting, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

“One of the most important things about the rule of law is prosecution must not be abused because if abused, it is the most powerful instrument of oppression,” Ms Ng said.

Martin Lee
Veteran democracy activist Martin Lee speaks during the lawyers’ demo (AP)

She and other lawyers urged protesters to avoid violence that could harm their cause.

Lawyer Dennis Kwok said government warnings of stern measures against protesters will merely flame the people’s anger.

He called for an independent investigation into the actions of police and protesters.

Another Chinese official said on Tuesday it would be “only a matter of time” before those behind the protests are punished, further indicating that Beijing will take a hard line against the demonstrators and has no plans to negotiate over their demands for political reforms.

“We would like to make it clear to the very small group of unscrupulous and violent criminals and the dirty forces behind them: Those who play with fire will perish by it,” said Yang Guang, spokesman for the Chinese Cabinet’s Hong Kong and Macao affairs office.