China’s Xi Says Hong Kong Faced ‘Grimmest’ Challenge in 2019

Natalie Lung and Stephen Tan

(Bloomberg) -- President Xi Jinping said Hong Kong this year faced its “grimmest and most complicated” situation since returning to Chinese rule, urging the city to come back to the “right path.”

Xi reaffirmed support for Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam as he hosted the embattled chief executive for her annual duty visit to Beijing. He praised her efforts to stimulate the battered Hong Kong economy and called on the city’s residents to help overcome challenges after more than six months of pro-democracy protests.

“The central government fully recognizes the courage and responsibility you demonstrated in such testing times,” Xi told Lam in briefly televised remarks. “We will continue to firmly support you in leading the Hong Kong government to rule in accordance to the law, to firmly support the police force in strictly enforcing the law, and hope that various sectors would come together to put Hong Kong’s development back on the right path.”

Lam said the Hong Kong economy’s “return to the right path” would require the continued support of the central government in Beijing. When asked whether Chinese leaders had pressured her to introduce a national security law as required by Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, Lam said such legislation would require “favorable opportunities, a favorable environment and conditions” and that the current priority was to stop violence and restore order.

“During my meeting with the premier, I suggested that the central government could in the future introduce measures favorable to Hong Kong in different economic areas, including development in the Greater Bay Area,” she said at a briefing following her meeting with Xi. “The response from the premier has been positive.”

The visit by Lam, whose public approval rating has falling to historic lows over her handling of the unrest, comes after an estimated 800,000 people took to the streets in a demonstration last week. It also follows a landslide victory by opposition pro-democracy parties over her pro-establishment allies in local elections.

Weekend Clashes

On Sunday night, Hong Kong protesters blocked roads in Mong Kok -- a commercial area known for its night market -- and threw glass bottles and other items at police. Police sprayed tear gas to disperse the crowds, according to a statement from the city’s government.

The clashes followed a more subdued weekend of demonstrations in the city. Hong Kong launched an ad campaign in overseas newspapers Monday, aiming to reassure travelers and global investors that the Asian financial hub remains free and stable after months of violent clashes between demonstrators and police.

Lam said Monday that her administration’s steps to restore order had proved effective given the relative calm.

Large crowds took to the streets to oppose a bill that would’ve allowed extraditions to mainland China, which has since 1997 promised Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” under terms agreed to by the British. Although Lam eventually withdrew the proposed law, the protesters’ demands have broadened to include universal suffrage and the creation of an independent inquiry into police conduct during the increasingly violent unrest.

“Hong Kong in 2019 has faced the grimmest and most complicated situation since its handover,” Xi said.

Throughout the chaos, China has steadfastly supported Lam and condemned violent protesters while resisting calls for greater democracy. The clashes have taken a toll on Hong Kong’s economy, which is expected to enter its first annual recession in a decade.

Earlier Monday, Lam met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who also repeated support for her leadership. Vice Premier Han Zheng, Liaison Office Director Wang Zhimin and Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Director Zhang Xiaoming were among the senior officials who also met with Lam Monday.

The clash in Mong Kok late Sunday followed an earlier gathering of several hundred people in Edinburgh Place in central Hong Kong, calling for a strike by social workers. In the New Territories area of Sha Tin, police said they had taken “enforcement actions” after scuffles with protesters in a mall broke out earlier in the day.

Earlier on Sunday, hundreds of people also gathered in Tamar Park in the city center for a rally in support of the government. People waved China flags and chanted “say no to violence” as speakers called for an end to anti-Beijing protests.

During his meeting with Lam on Monday, Li urged Hong Kong’s government to continue to curb violence and to study the “deep-rooted economic and social problems” and “unprecedented complexity” it faced.

(Updates with Carrie Lam comments from fourth paragraph)

--With assistance from Jinshan Hong, Iain Marlow, Gregor Stuart Hunter and Cecile Vannucci.

To contact the reporters on this story: Natalie Lung in Hong Kong at flung6@bloomberg.net;Stephen Tan in Hong Kong at ztan39@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at bscott66@bloomberg.net, Karen Leigh

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