The Hong Kong government said on Tuesday it deeply regrets the involvement of civil servants in protests that have plunged the Chinese-ruled city into crisis as activists plan fresh demonstrations across the territory.
Acting Chief Executive Matthew Cheung's comments came after a commentary on the ruling Communist Party's People's Daily Weibo account said Hong Kong civil servants who support the anti-government demonstrations would "perish with the rioters".
The demonstrations began over a since-scrapped extradition bill and escalated in mid-June. Protesters have kept up their calls for universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into police behaviour, among other demands.
The protests, which pose a grave challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping, have received broad support from Hong Kong people, including some civil servants, teachers and financial industry workers who have at times taken to the streets.
In August, thousands of civil servants defied a government warning to remain politically neutral and took to the streets.
While the number of people who take part in the mostly weekend rallies has dwindled from the millions who participated in June, the violence and vandalism have escalated. Authorities have refused permits for many recent protests, making them illegal from the outset and activists liable for arrest.
Cheung also said his administration would cherish and safeguard freedom of the press amid mounting criticism of what many see as excessive police force, including against the media.
Officers have said they have shown restraint in the face of escalating violence. Police cancelled a planned press conference on Monday after several journalists from the public broadcaster and other local media turned up wearing helmets with signs that read "investigate police brutality."
Cheung is standing in for embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, who is visiting mainland China, where President Xi Jinping said on Monday the central government had a high degree of confidence in her.
Protesters have circulated plans on social media to mark Guy Fawkes Day on Tuesday by wearing the white, smiling Guy Fawkes masks made popular by anti-establishment hackers, the film "V for Vendetta" and protesters globally.
Beijing-backed Lam banned face masks last month, invoking colonial-era emergency powers for the first time in more than 50 years, but protesters have largely ignored the ruling.
The demonstrations have battered the retail and tourism sectors, with preliminary government data showing the economy slid into recession for the first time in a decade in the third quarter.
An IHS Markit survey published on Tuesday showed business activity in Hong Kong's private sector fell to its weakest in 21 years in October, weighed down by anti-government protests and softening global demand.