Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng has described the violent protests in Hong Kong as “extreme and destructive acts” that would not be tolerated in any country in the world and said ending the turmoil was the responsibility of the entire administration – the executive, legislature and the judiciary.
At an official meeting with Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, Beijing’s top leader overseeing the city’s affairs said the anti-government protests that have rocked the city since early June had challenged the “one country, two systems” governing principle and trampled upon the rule of law. Radical separatists calling for independence would not be tolerated, he warned.
The protests had hurt the interest of Hong Kong, he said, as he acknowledged that Lam had done everything she could to quell the violence.
“The central government fully acknowledges the work done by you and the city administration, as well as the dedicated performance of the police,” he told Lam in his opening remarks at the meeting.
“Stopping violence and restoring order is still the most important work for Hong Kong society, the common responsibility of the city’s executive, legislative and judicial bodies, as well as the biggest consensus of the city,” he said.
Han was the first Chinese state leader to comment at length on the social unrest, noting that Beijing would lend its full support to Lam’s government to restore order, echoing the words of support by President Xi Jinping a day earlier.
On Monday, on the sidelines of a trade event in Shanghai, Xi also met with Lam and fully acknowledged her work in tackling the situation.
Like Xi, the vice-premier did not touch on alleged foreign intervention in Hong Kong’s protests, or label the unrest as riots, instead using the word “disturbances”.
Han also noted that Lam had rolled out her policy address last month to tackle social problems but had advice for her: “The central government supports your administration in taking measures that are more proactive and more effective in solving livelihood issues … especially the housing problems facing middle and lower income families, as well as young people’s housing and employment problems.”
In his opening remarks which the media were allowed to cover before the meeting continued behind closed doors, Han said: “In the past five months, disturbances in Hong Kong turned into endless violent activities. The society’s order has been seriously undermined, the rule of law has been trampled upon, the bottom lines of ‘one country, two systems’ have been challenged, and Hong Kong has been in the most serious situation since the handover [from British rule in 1997].
The violent and destructive acts, as well as radical separatist behaviours, have gone far beyond the bottom lines of law and morals
Chinese Vice-Premier Han Zheng
“This kind of extreme, violent and destructive activity would not be tolerated or accepted in any country or society in the world nowadays. The violent and destructive acts, as well as radical separatist behaviours, have gone far beyond the bottom lines of law and morals.”
Han also said that the central government remained fully confident about the “one country, two systems” governing principle continuing to be important for Hong Kong.
In response, Lam said she was sad that young people accounted for about a third of 3,000 people arrested so far.
“I am also very sad that originally, the momentum for Hong Kong’s economic development was quite good, and there were great opportunities offered by the Greater Bay Area plan … and now these were seriously undermined,” she said.
Lam was referring to Beijing’s plan to turn Hong Kong, Macau and nine Guangdong cities into a financial and technological powerhouse rivalling Silicon Valley by 2035.
The chief executive later attended the third plenary meeting of the leading group for the GBA plan on Wednesday afternoon. Speaking to the media later in the evening, Lam thanked Han for his support.
Asked why the state leaders remained supportive of her when protesters have repeatedly asked her to step down, she replied: “We are very grateful that [state leaders from] the central government showed their care on the city, as well as their understanding and support on the city’s government, including myself, when the central government saw the situation in Hong Kong.
“We will handle [protests] by insisting on the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and in accordance to the law, hoping that we can end violence and restore calmness in Hong Kong as soon as possible.”
Apart from Han, Beijing officials present at the meeting with Lam included Zhang Xiaoming, director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office; Wang Zhimin, director of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, and Ding Xuedong, deputy secretary general of the State Council.
After a four-day closed-door plenary meeting last week, the Communist Party leaders issued a communique which devoted considerable attention to Hong Kong. It said Beijing would strengthen supervision of the city’s affairs, particularly over national security issues, through legal means.
Asked whether Han discussed with her about the communique and national security, Lam said: “We did not go into details about this topic. We need to understand more about the document, so the central government will arranging for some officials to come and explain it to Hong Kong officials, including myself.”
Lam reiterated that while Hong Kong has the responsibility to enact legislation on national security, the work will be challenging if the government were to relaunch the exercise in the near future.
On Han’s call for “more proactive” policies, Li Xiaobing, an expert on Beijing’s policies for Hong Kong at Nankai University in Tianjin, said the vice-premier was indicating that Lam’s administration had room to do more in areas such as improving people’s livelihood.
“State leaders aimed at expressing support for the embattled chief executive through their meetings. But Han also urged Lam to take more effective measures in solving livelihood issues,” Li said.
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai believed that the vice-premier was indicating that the central government could support Hong Kong officials in adopting more drastic measures, such as reducing the number of mainland Chinese relocating to Hong Kong under the so-called one-way permit scheme, to appeal to residents weary of new immigrants.
Sources previously told the Post that Lam had considered the idea when drafting her policy address, but decided against going ahead with the move in the end.
Song Sio-chong, professor of the Centre for Basic Laws of Hong Kong and Macau at Shenzhen University, also believed that Han was hinting that she had Beijing’s support in tackling issues such as land and housing shortage.
“For things that the city’s government might be having difficulties in pushing forward, such as asking developers to release land, Beijing might be able to help [to put pressure].”
However, pro-Beijing lawmaker Martin Liao Cheung-Kong, a barrister and an adviser in Lam’s cabinet, said the vice-premier was only broadly pointing out deep-seated issues that needed to be resolved.
“These deep-seated issues are not resolved or even ignored by previous administrations, and it’s only triggered during this term of administration.”
On the point about judicial bodies’ responsibility in stopping violence, he said it was not a political message for judges.
“If there is insufficient evidence, then there is no reason to convict [anyone] in the name of stopping violence and restoring order, there’s no conflict with saying [the] court should rule according to the law,” Liao said.
Barrister and pro-establishment lawmaker Priscilla Leung Mei-fun also argued that no one could put pressure on judges, and Beijing was only saying that three branches had to handle the same issue. Leung also called for more resources to be allocated to the judiciary. “For instance, when Britain handled the riot prosecutions in 2011, the court had worked 24/7 to expedite the proceedings,” she said.
But legislator Tanya Chan, barrister and convener of the pro-democracy bloc, said she was worried that Han seemed to be suggesting that the three branches should cooperate with each other.
“Our judges will not and should not be affected by whatever directives from Beijing, and Beijing should not teach our judges how to adjudicate a case,” Chan said, adding the courts rule on a case based on facts and relevant laws.
Additional reporting by Alvin Lum, William Zheng and Jun Mai
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