Hong Kong’s acting leader has said that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting with Chief Executive Carrie Lam indicates the central government’s confidence in her administration.

The comments came as the two leaders met in Shanghai on Monday ahead of the China International Import Expo. Xi expressed a “high degree of trust” in Hong Kong’s embattled leader and called for “effective efforts” to be made to end the cycle of unrest, according to state media. It marked the first meeting between the pair since the start of mass pro-democracy protests in June.

Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung on November 5. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

Cheung told reporters before an Executive Council meeting on Tuesday that Xi’s comments were a boost of confidence to the Hong Kong government in its handling of ongoing demonstrations. The administration has nevertheless been widely criticised by foreign officials – including in the US, which is set to vote on a bill to punish those deemed responsible for suppressing freedoms in the city.

The meeting “underlines the very importance that the central people’s government and President Xi attaches to Hong Kong,” Cheung said. “I think the very fact that he’s so busy, that he found time to meet [the] Chief Executive, really is a vote of confidence in ourselves.”

“He has a high degree of confidence in the chief executive and also certainly recognise the positive work of the present government and also particularly the political teams. All of this is pretty reassuring to us.”

Hong Kong has been roiled by over 22 weeks of unrest sparked by a now-withdrawn extradition bill which would have enabled fugitive transfers to jurisdictions with poor human rights records, namely, mainland China. The movement has seen sometimes violent displays of dissent against Beijing’s encroachment, among calls for democratic reform, the release of arrested protesters, and accountability for the police’s handling of the crisis.

Press freedom

Asked about allegations of police mistreating frontline reporters, Cheung said the government could do more to “enhance understanding” between the force and the media.

“Freedom of the press is one of Hong Kong’s core values and we will certainly cherish and preserve it and safeguard it,” he said. “If there [are] any so-called complaints against the police in terms of handling the media, I think the proper channel is to lodge a formal complaint. The police, I’m sure, will follow through.”

His comments came a day after six reporters from different news outlets staged a silent protest at the police’s regular press conference by wearing helmets that displayed the phrase “Investigate police brutality, stop police lies.” The stunt prompted the force to end the event and, instead, resort to a Facebook live video.

Photo: RTHK screenshot.

On Sunday, Joey Kwok – a freelance photojournalist working for Stand News – was arrested and handcuffed on suspicion of obstructing police as he was taking photos at the mall. He refused police bail conditions and was released at around 4pm on Monday.

Cheung on Monday visited the office of Xinhua news agency in Happy Valley which had been vandalised by protesters the day before.

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Jennifer Creery

Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.