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Chinese President Xi Jinping said that Hong Kong must be governed by “patriots,” in the latest sign of Beijing’s focus on tightening control over the semiautonomous Asian financial center.

Xi told Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, whose term expires next year, that having loyal leaders was the only way to ensure the city’s stability, state media said. During the videoconference Wednesday, the Chinese president also offered some of his strongest praise yet for the unpopular Lam, crediting her with “stopping violence and chaos in accordance with the law and working to bring Hong Kong back on track.”

“On major issues such as national security, you have taken a firm stand and assumed responsibilities, demonstrating your love of and deep sense of responsibility to the motherland and Hong Kong,” Xi told Lam, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.

Xi also said he was “very concerned and worried” about the current coronavirus surge in Hong Kong and pledged additional support. “The motherland is always Hong Kong’s strong backing. Difficulties at hand can surely be overcome,” Xi said, according to the Xinhua report, which didn’t elaborate on what China might do.

The meeting comes amid a flurry of Hong Kong media reports that Chinese lawmakers in Beijing are discussing further curbs on the former British colony’s already limited democracy. All of the opposition members on the city’s legislature have either been ousted or resigned in protest amid a crackdown on dissent in the wake of historic demonstrations for democracy in 2019.

Beijing has increasingly stressed the need for “patriotism” from Hong Kong officials, a requirement that democracy activists argue is more about loyalty to the ruling Communist Party than the nation. Four opposition lawmakers deemed to be disloyal were ejected in November — prompting a mass resignation by those who remained — and the government said all civil servants appointed before July 1 would be asked to sign a declaration that they would uphold the city’s mini-constitution.

“To ensure the steady and lasting implementation of ‘one country, two systems,’ Hong Kong must always be governed by patriots,” Xi told Lam. “This is the fundamental principle that bears on China’s sovereignty, security and development interests, as well as Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability.”

Lam told Xi that the city has “essentially functioned normally with the financial system remaining stable,” according to a statement issued late Wednesday. She said her top priority was curbing the epidemic “to protect people’s health and restore economic activities.”

Beijing’s efforts to crack down on Hong Kong’s opposition, including the enactment of a sweeping national security law in June, has drawn protests from Western nations and U.S. sanctions on Chinese officials. In the call, Xi pointedly offered his condolences to Hong Kong officials targeted by what he called “unreasonable sanctions.”

Lam, who has complained that American sanctions have prevented her from accessing banking services, thanked Xi for his support, according to the government statement. She said Hong Kong officials “would continue to discharge their duty to safeguard national security without fear.”

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