By Sharon Tam
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Tuesday she would work closely with Beijing’s top official in the Asian financial hub to get it back on “the right path” after more than six months of pro-democracy protests.
The appointment of a new head of the Chinese government’s most important office in Hong Kong, Luo Huining, was unexpectedly announced at the weekend in a sign of Beijing’s frustration with the latter’s handling of the crisis.
The Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region reports to China’s State Council or Cabinet, and is the main platform for Beijing to project its influence in the city.
“I would work closely with director Luo in the coming future, committing to ‘one country, two systems’, and the Basic Law, for Hong Kong to … return to the right path,” Lam said in her first news conference of the year, referring to the city’s mini-constitution and system of governance.
Luo on Monday, in his first remarks since taking office, used the same language, saying he hoped the city would return to the right path.
At a news briefing in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States had noted Luo’s appointment and language about the “right path” and added:
“The right path … is for the Chinese Communist Party to honor its commitment made to Hong Kong … that guarantees the territory’s independent rule of law and freedom that the Chinese living on the mainland, unfortunately, do not enjoy.”
In November, Reuters reported exclusively that Beijing was considering replacing the former liaison office chief, Wang Zhimin, who had come under criticism for failing to anticipate public opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill.
Lam did not mention the protests in her opening remarks, which focused on health risks related an outbreak of a respiratory virus in the city of Wuhan in China. Authorities have identified 21 cases in Hong Kong, of which seven have been released from hospital.
Clashes between police and protesters have intensified over the year-end holiday following an early-December lull in violence after an overwhelming win by the pro-democracy camp in city district council elections yielded no government concessions.
Anti-government protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong have evolved over the months into a broad pro-democracy campaign with demands for universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into complaints of police brutality.
The police maintain they have acted with restraint.
Many people in Hong Kong are angered by what they see as Beijing ever-tightening its grip on the city which was promised a high degree of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” framework when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing denies interference and blames the West for fomenting the unrest.
The protest movement is supported by 59% of city residents polled in a survey conducted for Reuters by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute and 57% of them wanted Lam to resign.
(Writing by Marius Zaharia in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Jonathan Oatis)