Police in Hong Kong fire tear gas during a protest in the district of Causeway Bay on Sunday. Photo: isaac lawrence/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

BEIJING—A senior Chinese official in charge of Hong Kong affairs warned that Beijing would intervene if the local government proved unable to contain the violent protests, the most explicit threat of intervention to date from the central government.

At a meeting with Hong Kong representatives in the nearby city of Shenzhen on Wednesday, the official, Zhang Xiaoming, issued a dire assessment of the situation in the territory after more than two months of protests. He called the situation the most severe since China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong in 1997.

“If the situation worsens further, and there is turmoil that the Hong Kong government is unable to control, the central government absolutely will not just watch without doing anything,” Mr. Zhang, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of China’s State Council, said in remarks carried by official state media.

Though Mr. Zhang didn’t lay out options for intervention, he said the central government had “enough methods and enough strength” to quickly quell the unrest.

Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, said the meeting was likely held to discuss methods for resolving the crisis with Hong Kong’s elite, and to show that Beijing will back up Hong Kong’s government.

“The one big thing that I think Beijing fears is if the pro-establishment camp breaks down and really loses the will to confront the protesters,” he said. “It’s really about reinforcing the notion that the Party center is behind them, with military force if necessary.”

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong are becoming increasingly violent. New propaganda videos of Chinese police and soldiers on riot drills evoke memories of Tiananmen Square, although analysts say an armed intervention is unlikely and a last resort. Photo: Dale de la Rey/AFP/Getty Images

Beijing has in recent days expressed its concern that the protests were spiraling out of control and challenging China’s sovereignty over the territory, a former British colony that has limited autonomy under Chinese rule. The demonstrations started as protests against an extradition bill proposed by the local government, but have turned increasingly violent and pointedly critical of Chinese rule, with protesters targeting the national flag and state seal.

Mr. Zhang’s warning of intervention was more direct than in recent days when officials signaled that Beijing’s patience was wearing thin. A day earlier in Shenzhen, where Wednesday’s meeting was held, more than 10,000 mainland police officers ran through anti-riot drills, a video of which was circulated widely online as a show of force.

Still Beijing faces invidious options if it moves to intervene. Use of troops in a military garrison in Hong Kong or of riot police brought in from other parts of China would likely bring international opprobrium, damage confidence in the territory’s role as an international finance center and be seen by many in Hong Kong as undermining its rule of law.

Wednesday’s gathering included more than 500 representatives, including Hong Kong delegates to China’s legislature and leaders of pro-Beijing groups in the city, and others in attendance. A similar meeting had been held in 2014 when a swath of Hong Kong’s central area was occupied by protesters demanding full democratic elections.

Most of the discussions took place behind closed doors, with selected remarks released by Chinese state media.

Wang Zhimin, Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong, called it a “life and death war,” and said the situation had already been pressed to the point where there was no room left to retreat.

Mr. Zhang said the protests had the markings of a “color revolution.” The term refers to democratic movements that have unseated authoritarian governments in countries such as Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine.

The meeting followed a barrage of state media commentaries in recent days that have warned Beijing won’t allow the Hong Kong unrest to continue. A spokesman for Mr. Zhang’s office said at a press conference on Tuesday that those behind the protests wouldn’t escape punishment.

Write to Eva Dou at eva.dou@wsj.com

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