Xi Jinping’s meeting with Carrie Lam: she reveals she could feel his support for her to end Hong Kong protest violence; analysts say it was to quash rumours of her firing

Tony Cheung

Chinese President Xi Jinping has lent his full support to Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, quashing speculation for now she would be replaced even as he signalled that her government must quell the social unrest that has now roiled the city for five months.

In a meeting with the chief executive on Monday night, Xi also took a measured approach in giving his assessment of the political crisis roiling the city, analysts said. While he demanded “unswerving efforts to stop and punish violent activities” in accordance with the law, the president also called for more dialogue with different sectors of society.

“Xi expressed his hope that people from all walks of life in Hong Kong fully and faithfully implement the principle of ‘one country, two systems’,” state news agency Xinhua reported.

The formal sit-down in Shanghai was the first official meeting between the two since anti-government protests sparked by the now-withdrawn extradition bill began in early June.

Lam said on Tuesday that Xi’s remarks showed that the president cared about the city.

“As the country’s president, it’s natural for him to be concerned about what’s happened in Hong Kong. I can feel his support over the work that the government has done to curb violence,” she told the media on the sidelines of the China International Import Expo, which Xi opened earlier in the day.

Lam said Xi’s call for an end to violence did not mean Beijing would tighten its grip on Hong Kong.

She also confirmed that the meeting was not originally on her schedule. A source said it was not on Xi’s itinerary either, and Lam said she was only notified just before the expo’s dinner banquet on Monday that the president would meet her later at 10pm.

Carrie Lam leaves the Hong Kong exhibition area at the China International Import Expo on Tuesday. Photo: Reuters

The city’s leader is due to meet Vice-Premier Han Zheng, who oversees Hong Kong affairs for the central government, on Wednesday.

Hong Kong commentators and Beijing-loyalist politicians said the meeting with Xi was the central government’s way of trying to quash rumours Lam would be replaced soon and reiterate what she had to do to lead the city out of the current impasse.

Opposition pan-democrats, however, feared that the meeting would only embolden Lam’s administration to take a tougher stance on protesters.

According to Xinhua, Xi’s meeting with Lam started with her presenting a report on the recent situation in Hong Kong.

Xi Jinping met Carrie Lam on Monday in Shanghai. Photo: Xinhua

Responding to it, Xi affirmed the work she had done so far. “Xi voiced the central government’s high degree of trust in Lam and full acknowledgement of the work of her and her governance team. Ending violence and chaos remain the most important task for Hong Kong at present,” Xinhua reported.

“Xi demanded unswerving efforts to stop and punish violent activities in accordance with the law … Meanwhile, effective efforts should be made in work, including having dialogue with all sectors.”

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Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said the primary goal of Xi’s meeting with Lam was to crush speculation she would be replaced soon.

“Those rumours were not conducive to Hong Kong’s stability and the government’s work, so the top leader must make it clear that Lam’s position remains firm,” he said.

“Han, on Wednesday, can then move on and talk to Lam about the actual work that she has to do.”

Lau added that apart from showering praise, Xi also made it a point to mention that “the disturbances in Hong Kong have lasted for five months”.

“It means that the unrest has been prolonged long enough, and the onus is on the city’s government to up its game,” he added. “If a government is competent, the disturbances would not last so long.”

Hong Kong has been rocked by almost five months of protests. Photo: Reuters

Beijing loyalist Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole representative to the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the country’s top legislative body, said Xi’s remarks showed there was no need to replace Lam.

Tam also noted that unlike other mainland officials, Xi did not touch on alleged foreign intervention in Hong Kong’s protests, or label the unrest as “riots” and instead used the word “disturbances”.

“As the president, he looked at the issue from a more macro perspective … and supported the government in having more dialogue,” he said.

Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung was asked on Tuesday if the meeting showed Beijing’s worry that the Hong Kong administration had failed to come up with measures to restore peace.

But Cheung said it mainly underlined the importance that Xi attached to Hong Kong.

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“He found time to meet the chief executive, it’s a vote of confidence in ourselves,” he said.

In the Legislative Council, opposition pan-democrats said Xi’s remarks showed that Beijing did not understand Hong Kong people’s grievances.

Matthew Cheung says the meeting underlines the importance Xi Jinping attaches to Hong Kong. Photo: Nora Tam

Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan, convener of the pro-democracy bloc, said: “With Xi’s support, Lam will continue to handle protests in a high-handed manner.”

After attending the opening ceremony of the second annual China International Import Expo in Shanghai, Lam travelled to Beijing on Tuesday night for the meeting with Han on Wednesday.

Sources said in the meeting, Han would instruct Lam on policy directives for the city.

After a four-day, closed-door plenary meeting, the party’s leaders issued a communique last Thursday that devoted considerable attention to Hong Kong. It said Beijing would strengthen supervision of the city’s affairs, particularly over national security issues.

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