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Xi vows support for HK leader during 'most difficult' time

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Chinese President Xi Jinping, who met Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Monday, said Beijing was "unwavering in supporting the Hong Kong police to firmly uphold the law".

Hong Kong

CHINESE President Xi Jinping met Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam in Beijing on Monday, saying he recognised her courage to govern the Asian financial hub in these "most difficult" times.

"The situation in Hong Kong in 2019 was the most complex and difficult since its return to the motherland," Mr Xi told local media in brief comments before the closed-door session.

Mrs Lam's meetings come after Hong Kong police fired tear gas in late night street clashes with anti-government protesters on Sunday, as the former British colony's worst political crisis in decades drags on into a seventh month.

Hong Kong media have speculated that Mrs Lam's talks with Mr Xi could yield fresh directives on the city's political crisis, including a possible cabinet reshuffle.

Mr Xi did not go into specifics, but reiterated his support for Mrs Lam despite some previous media reports suggesting she might be replaced.

"We will continue to be unwavering in supporting you to lead the Hong Kong special administrative government to govern in accordance with the law," said Mr Xi as Mrs Lam listened, standing next to him.

He added Beijing was "unwavering in supporting the Hong Kong police to firmly uphold the law", while expressing hope for unity in Hong Kong to get the city back on the right path.

Earlier, Mrs Lam met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang who said Hong Kong was not yet out of the "dilemma" facing the city's ailing economy after months of sometimes violent protests.

Late on Sunday, groups of masked youths blocked roads around Mong Kok district, prompting police to fire multiple rounds of tear gas and baton charge crowds.

Protesters are angry by what they see as Chinese meddling in freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Mr Xi said that Mrs Lam had continued to uphold the "one country, two systems" principle that promises Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and liberties, such as freedom of the press, denied in the mainland under Chinese rule.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a report on Monday that press freedom in Hong Kong has come under an accelerating squeeze despite China's pledges to maintain an open society.

Large media properties have come under mainland Chinese ownership or influence, while targeted violence has underscored potential dangers for journalists who challenge China's wishes, the report said.

Asked about the report during a daily news briefing in Beijing on Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he has not seen the report and that it was not worth refuting.

Hong Kong, home to more than seven million people, entered its first recession in a decade in the third quarter with tourism and retail particularly affected by the sometimes violent protests.

The city's international airport reported its biggest fall in passenger numbers in more than a decade in November, official data released on Sunday showed.

Mrs Lam's administration has pledged HK$25 billion (S$4.34 billion) in stimulus but analysts say it is unlikely to have a major impact as long as the unrest continues.

Some 7,000 licensed retail establishments out of 64,000 say they will be forced to close down in the next six months, the Hong Kong Retail Management Association said earlier this month.

While the number of protests has eased in recent weeks, the movement still enjoys broad backing, with families, children and retirees still coming out to recent demonstrations.

Protesters have called on the government to address their demands, which include an independent inquiry into police behaviour and the implementation of universal suffrage. REUTERS