Chinese leader Xi Jinping met with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam in Shanghai on Nov. 4, with Chinese state media reporting that Xi affirmed her administration’s performance during the nearly six months of mass protests in Hong Kong.
This is the first time Xi has met with Lam since Hongkongers began the city’s largest-ever protest movement, sparked by opposition to an extradition bill that would allow mainland China to transfer individuals from Hong Kong and stand trial in Communist Party-controlled courts.
Amid mounting pressure, Lam announced in September that the bill would be shelved.
The unrest has posed one of the biggest political challenges to the Chinese regime. Even after the bill was withdrawn, Hongkongers have continued to protest, calling for universal suffrage in city elections and an independent investigation of police use of force against protesters.
Lam traveled to Shanghai on Oct. 31 to attend the China International Import Expo. The event began in 2018 as part of the One Belt, One Road initiative (OBOR), China’s flagship foreign policy project of financing infrastructure projects overseas in a bid to gain geopolitical clout.
China’s state-run media Xinhua reported that Xi met with Lam on Nov. 4 at the exposition and heard Lam report about the situation in Hong Kong.
“The central government is highly trusting of you. We confirm the efforts that you and your team have done,” the report quoted Xi as saying to Lam. “Currently, the most important task in Hong Kong is to stop the violence and restore order.”
Xi told Lam that “punishing violent activities” is the right solution, and asked Lam to “execute it unswervingly.”
Lam is scheduled to travel to Beijing on Nov. 5, and will meet with her direct boss, Vice Premier Han Zheng on Nov. 6. It will be Lam’s first meeting with Han, the top Beijing official in charge of managing Hong Kong affairs, since the mass protests began.
Xi’s comments follow shortly after Chinese Communist Party (CCP) elite signaled a tougher stance on Hong Kong, including during the fourth plenary session, a key political conclave, which concluded on Oct. 31. According to the plenum communique, the Party discussed “establishing and perfecting a legal system and law enforcement mechanism” in Hong Kong to “safeguard national security.”
Shen Chunyao, the director of the Hong Kong, Macau, and Basic Law Commission, also spoke about Beijing’s plans for the territory during a Nov. 1 press conference, held after the plenum.
Shen mentioned “enhancing” the local police force, as well as ensuring that political candidates for the chief executive are pro-Beijing, and that only officials who head the Party’s rubber-stamp legislature have the right to interpret the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
Chinese state media’s recounting of the meeting suggests that Xi approved of a tougher approach toward protesters, as Xi said he agreed with Lam’s handling of “violent activities,” U.S.-based commentator Tang Jingyuan said.
Lam has already invoked a colonial-era Emergency Regulation Ordinance to ban people from wearing face masks during public gatherings, without discussion or voting by Hong Kong’s legislature. She said the ban would deter protesters, who often wear masks in order to protect their identities, from “escalating violence.”
Tang predicted that following Xi’s approval, Lam could continue to enact regulations under the ordinance. Tang also said the meeting signaled that Xi wouldn’t replace Lam right away.
“Based on what’s happened in the past few months, I think there are two reasons: Xi cannot ensure that her replacement can be loyal to him, due to factional differences within the CCP. In addition, Xi wants Lam to continue [using force to handle the protests],” Tang said in an interview.