Asia Pacific

Carrie Lam says Xi has assured her Beijing won't turn the screws on Hong Kong

Bloomberg

Chinese President Xi Jinping has offered personal assurances that he won’t use the protests in Hong Kong as an excuse to tighten Beijing’s controls on the region, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said.

Speaking in a Bloomberg Television interview at the World Economic Forum on Tuesday, Lam pushed back against the widespread assumption that Xi is tightening controls on Hong Kong as she sought to reassure global investors that the financial center will remain stable despite months of historic and increasingly violent protests.

“There is no truth in the allegation that the central government is tightening the grip on Hong Kong,” Lam said. “The central government has time and again made it very clear that they want Hong Kong to succeed under ‘one country, two systems’ and a high degree of autonomy. It was made very clear to me by President Xi Jinping on the three occasions that I met him” in recent months.

Lam arrived in Davos after a fresh bout of protest violence in downtown Hong Kong, with four police officers injured in clashes with demonstrators Sunday following an otherwise peaceful rally. More than seven months of pro-democracy protests have battered the former British colony’s economy, undermined its reputation for political stability and increased geopolitical tensions between the U.S. and China.

China has governed Hong Kong since 1997 under the “one country, two systems” framework, which preserves its freedom of expression, independent courts and capitalist financial system. The city’s pro-democracy opposition has accused Beijing of eroding that autonomy and stonewalling calls for meaningful direct elections of the chief executive, who is currently selected by a 1,200-member committee.

While Lam withdrew legislation allowing extraditions to China that initially prompted the unrest, she has so far refused to consider other key protester demands, including an independent probe of the police.

In Davos, Lam hinted that there may be other motivations behind the protests.

“One has to wonder what are the underlying factors that caused the sustained social unrest in the last few months,” she said.

The protests have been more subdued since mid-November, when pro-democracy candidates swept elections for local district councils. The city of 7.4 million people remains bitterly divided, with widespread distrust of Beijing and the local government. The main political event this year will be elections for the more powerful Legislative Council in September.

Rumors have persisted for months that Beijing may replace Lam, with her approval rating hovering near a record low at 14 percent, according to a Hong Kong Public Opinion Program survey released this month. So far, Xi has reaffirmed China’s support for Lam, although Beijing replaced its main representative in Hong Kong this month with an official whom some analysts described as a hardliner.

Lam herself insisted she wouldn’t quit.

“I will do my utmost to stay in this position and arrest the current situation,” she said.

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