Chinese President Xi Jinping has held a surprise meeting with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Mr Xi met Mrs Lam on the sidelines of a trade event in Shanghai on Monday night amid signals from China’s central government that it may tighten its grip on Hong Kong to quell the unrest that has challenged Chinese rule.
When asked if the meeting reflected Mr Xi’s worry about Mrs Lam’s handling of the unrest, Hong Kong chief secretary Matthew Cheung said: “The reverse is true.”
“The very fact that he is so busy, that he found time to meet, really is a vote of confidence in ourselves” and underlined the importance that Beijing attaches to Hong Kong, Mr Cheung said.
Mr Xi “has a high degree of confidence in the chief executive and also certainly the work of the present government and the political team, so all these are pretty reassuring to us,” he added.
Pro-democracy politician Claudia Mo warned of a tougher stance by Beijing.
“They realised 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,” Ms 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 Mr Xi expressed his government’s “high degree of trust” in Mrs Lam to stabilise the situation after she briefed him on the crisis.
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 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.
Mrs 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 the biggest challenge to Mr Xi since he came to power in 2012.