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China stands by HK leader after days of street protests

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Ms Lam stopped short of explicitly killing the bill, but an official has said that the postponement meant that it was effectively dead.

Hong Kong

CHINA doubled down on its support for Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Monday after days of protests in the Chinese-ruled city over a planned extradition bill, and a source close to Ms Lam said that Beijing was unlikely to let her go even if she tried to resign. Her attempts to pass a bill that would allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to China to stand trial triggered protests in the former British colony.

As the political crisis entered its second week, demonstrators and opposition politicians braved intermittent rain to gather near the government's offices and call for the bill to be killed and for her to step down.

The upheaval comes at a delicate time for Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is grappling with a deepening US trade war, an ebbing economy and regional strategic tension.

Hong Kong has been governed under a "one country, two systems" formula since its return to Beijing in 1997, allowing freedoms not granted to the mainland, including an independent judiciary, but short of a fully democratic vote.

Many residents are increasingly unnerved by Beijing's tightening grip and what they see as the erosion of those freedoms, fearing that changes to the rule of law could imperil its status as a global financial centre.

"The Chinese government, the central government, has always fully affirmed the work of chief executive Carrie Lam and the Hong Kong government," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang told a news conference. The comments echoed remarks over the weekend from the government's Hong Kong and Macau policy office.

"The central government will continue to firmly support the chief executive and the SAR government's governing in accordance with the law," he said, referring to the "special administrative region" of China.

Protest organisers said that almost two million people - out of Hong Kong's population of around seven million - turned out on Sunday to demand that Ms Lam resign, in what is becoming the most significant challenge to China's relationship with the territory since 1997.

The mass rally, which police said drew 338,000 participants at its peak, forced Ms Lam to apologise over her plans to push through the bill.

On Monday, protesters near the government's offices blocked roads and called for her to withdraw the bill, release arrested students, drop the official description of a rally on Wednesday that involved clashes with the police as a riot, and step down.

A senior Hong Kong official close to the Beijing-backed Ms Lam told Reuters on Monday that Beijing was not likely to let her step down, even if she wanted to, saying that "it would create more sorts of problems than it solves, at all sorts of levels".

Ms Lam stopped short of explicitly killing the bill, but the official said that the postponement meant that it was effectively dead.

Still, many in Hong Kong are unhappy at the prospect of legislation that lawyers and judges say risks exposing people to the mercy of a mainland justice system plagued by torture, forced confessions and arbitrary detention.

The bill would cover Hong Kong residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or travelling through the city.

"We cannot accept her apology, it doesn't remove all our threats," said social worker Brian Chau, one of several hundred protesters who stayed overnight in the Admiralty district around the government headquarters and legislature.

In a coincidence of timing, Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, the face of the city's push for full democracy, walked free from prison on Monday and vowed to join the mass protest movement.

"I will join to fight against this evil law," said Mr Wong, 22, one of the leaders of the 2014 "Umbrella" pro-democracy protests that blocked major roads in Hong Kong for 79 days. "I believe this is the time for her, Carrie Lam the liar, to step down."

Two former post-colonial leaders, Tung Chee-Hwa and Leung Chun-ying, were forced to cut short their time in office amid controversies linked to policies that stoked fears of Chinese encroachment on the city's freedoms.

The latest crisis escalated during Mr Wong's five-week jail term for contempt of court. Until this month, the failure of the Umbrella protests to wrest concessions from Beijing, coupled with prosecutions of at least 100 protesters, had discouraged many young people from going back out on the streets.

But Ms Lam's efforts to ram through the proposed extradition bill galvanised opposition. Hong Kong opposition politicians echoed marchers' calls for both Ms Lam and the proposed law to go. REUTERS