Hong Kong leader says she has Xi’s backing to tackle unrest

In this Monday, Nov. 4, 2019, photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping poses with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam for a photo during a meeting in Shanghai, China. Lam is here for the second China International Import Expo (CIIE). (Ju Peng/Xinhua via AP)

Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, said Tuesday that she has received the backing of Chinese President Xi Jinping in her handling of five months of anti-government protests that have rocked the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

Xi and Lam held talks in a surprise meeting Monday night on the sidelines of a trade event in Shanghai amid signals from China’s central government that it may tighten its grip on Hong Kong to quell the unrest that has at times challenged Chinese rule.

Lam told a news conference in Shanghai that Xi had expressed “care and concern” during their brief meeting, along with support for measures taken by her government to end the crisis. She vowed that the government will strive to stamp out violence with strict law enforcement.

Lam said she was disturbed by mounting injuries during the protests, including an incident early Monday that left a university student sprawled in a pool of blood at a carpark building after police fired tear gas. Hospital officials said the youth was in a critical condition. Police couldn’t immediately provide details.

Lam said that investigations would be carried out to determine exactly what happened, and that the case drove home the government’s message that violence must cease.

Television footage showed riot police firing tear gas at the building after objects were hurled down at the street at them when they chased off a mob. Minutes later, medical workers found the unconscious youth on the second floor of the building. He was believed to have plunged from the third floor, local media said.

Earlier Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung said Xi’s meeting with Lam was a “vote of confidence” in the city’s ability to tackle the unrest and underlined the importance that Beijing attaches to the Asian financial hub.

But pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo warned of a tougher stance by Beijing.

“They realized things in Hong Kong have reached a point of no return and there is no choice except for keeping their approval for Carrie Lam with hopes that things will die down,” Mo told The Associated Press. “The message to Hong Kong people is that we are with her, she has our backing and you better watch out.”

China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported that Xi expressed his government’s “high degree of trust” in Lam but also “demanded unswerving efforts to stop and punish violent activities.” He also called for more dialogue and efforts to improve people’s livelihoods in one of the world’s most expensive cities.

China’s Communist Party last week indicated it may try to find a way to enact anti-subversion laws in Hong Kong, after such measures were shelved previously due to public opposition.

The protests began in early June against an extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to be sent for trials in mainland China, which many saw as infringing on Hong Kong’s judicial freedoms and other rights that were guaranteed when the former British colony return to China in 1997.

Lam abandoned the bill three months into the protests, but the movement by then had grown into calls for greater democracy and police accountability and had become one of Xi’s biggest challenges since he came to power in 2012. Lam has invoked emergency powers to ban the use of facial coverings at rallies, provoking further anger.

Hundreds of students defiantly wore masks — including Guy Fawkes masks, which are protest symbols worldwide — in schools Tuesday to mark the one-month anniversary of the ban, local media said. Calls emerged online for protesters to wear Guy Fawkes masks at evening gatherings.

Protests in recent weeks have been marked by violence as hardcore anti-government demonstrators set fires and trashed facilities in clashes with police who used tear gas, and brawls occurred between demonstrators and pro-Chinese activists.

More than 3,300 people have been arrested since the protests began. In one bloody incident Sunday night, a knife-wielding man believed to be a Beijing supporter slashed two people after an argument and bit off part of a local politician’s ear outside a mall. Police have arrested the assailant and two men who attacked him.

Cheung said the government plans to hold a second community dialogue after Nov. 24 district elections. Lam held her first town hall meeting on Sept. 26, where she was criticized by angry residents.

— Eileen Ng

Associated Press researcher Shanshan Wang in Beijing contributed to this report.

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