Hong Kong is a matter for China, Premier Li Keqiang tells Angela Merkel

Teddy Ng

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said on Friday that Beijing would safeguard the one country, two systems and support Hong Kong government efforts to end the crisis which has engulfed the city for months, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for “utmost” effort to avoid violence.

Merkel, in her visit to Beijing, also called for resolving the crisis through peaceful dialogue as concerns remained whether Beijing would deploy troops to end the unrest in the city and violence by the protesters.

Merkel had last month called for a peaceful solution to the unrest in Hong Kong, but it was the first time she directly raised the issue with a top Chinese leader. Li is the highest ranking Chinese official to comment on Hong Kong since protests erupted in the former British colony over an extradition bill – which has now been formally withdrawn.

At a joint press conference with Merkel in Beijing, Li said: “[Please have confidence that] Chinese people have the capability and wisdom to manage well our own affairs.” His remarks were seen as a message to foreign governments not to interfere in the city’s affairs.

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“The Chinese government unswervingly safeguards ‘one country, two systems’ and ‘Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong’,” he said.

Li said Beijing supported the Hong Kong government’s efforts “to end the violence and chaos in accordance with the law, to return to order, which is to safeguard Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability”.

For her part, Merkel said Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor had showed a willingness to conduct dialogues, and she hoped that could be realised.

“Under the current situation, we should do the utmost to avoid violence. Only through political dialogues can the issues be resolved,” she said. “Also, another important sign is that the Hong Kong government has said it will withdraw the controversial draft of law and I hope, based on that, all the parties can participate in the dialogues.”

Merkel said the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong citizens should be guaranteed, and the Sino-British Joint Declaration should still be considered valid.

What is the Sino-British Joint Declaration?

The 1984 declaration, signed between former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher and former Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, states that China’s basic policies regarding Hong Kong “will remain unchanged for 50 years”, including the promise that the city would retain a high degree of autonomy.

Beijing has declared the paper a historical document that no longer has any realistic meaning. When UK officials insisted that the agreement remained in effect, Beijing accused them of harbouring “colonial illusions”.

In addition to Merkel, other national leaders have also spoken out on Hong Kong. The Group of Seven nations last month reaffirmed the importance of the Sino-British joint declaration and called for violence to be avoided. Beijing rebuked the G7 leaders, accusing them of meddling in China’s internal affairs.

Zhu Jie, a specialist in Hong Kong affairs at Wuhan University, said that by stressing that Chinese people can manage China’s affairs, Li was letting foreign leaders know their remarks were “improper”.

“Germany is a pillar in the EU and an influential country in the G7. Premier Li is asking not only Germany but also the key Western countries not to interfere with China's internal affairs, especially after the EU and G7 made “improper” remarks regarding Hong Kong from China's perspective,” he said.

“This is a signal to the west, but also to Hong Kong,” Zhu said.

The anti-government protests began over a highly unpopular extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be transferred to mainland China. The protests began peacefully but turned violent and have resulted in numerous clashes between police and protesters.

Lam announced on Wednesday that the bill would be formally withdrawn, but this has not satisfied the anti-government movement, with some protesters planning to block traffic to Hong Kong’s international airport on Saturday (tomorrow).

Fitch Ratings on Friday downgraded the city’s rating one notch from AA+ to AA and the city’s outlook from stable to negative, citing doubts about its governance under the “one country, two systems” principle.

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Lam said she disagreed with the Fitch decision but also said the city would continue to cooperate with its mainland Chinese neighbours, saying Hong Kong had benefited significantly from the continuous reform of the mainland economy.

“I believe this should continue for the mutual benefit of Hong Kong and the mainland, and for the people on both sides,” she said.

Asked if protests in Hong Kong were fuelled by residents’ worries over cross-border integration, Lam said: “I don’t want us to rush into a particular social issue being the cause of the current disturbance. We should look deeply and discuss with each other in order to identify those problems so we can find the right solutions.”

Lam was speaking after attending the annual pan-Pearl River Delta regional cooperation conference in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region on Friday.

As protests reflect anti-mainland sentiment, Lam boosts cross-border ties

The conference is an occasion for officials from Hong Kong, Macau, Guangxi, Guangdong province, and seven other provinces in southern China to discuss matters of cooperation. The 11 regional economies accounted for more than a third of the country’s population and gross domestic product last year.

Guangdong governor Ma Xingrui said regional cooperation with Hong Kong and Macau had been strengthened in aspects such as tourism and technology in the past year.

A commentary published by the overseas edition of Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily said the chaos in Hong Kong had exposed some deep-rooted problems facing the city – for example, the lack of affordable housing for young people and the large poverty gap.

The violence would be a blow to Hong Kong’s economy, it said. “Solving these problems does not only take one day’s effort. We need to adopt various measures and ways. The most pressing task is to return quickly to sustainable, healthy and stable development.”

Additional reporting by Kristin Huang, Associated Press and Reuters

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