BEIJING — Chinese leader Xi Jinping is doubling down on his support for embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam as he seeks to project an image of assuredness amid political challenges from China’s southern periphery and from the United States.
The meeting was meant to throw Beijing’s weight behind Lam but may harden the pattern of intensifying confrontation between Hong Kong authorities and protesters who are calling for Lam’s resignation and full democracy in the semiautonomous territory, among other demands.
Lam has struggled for five months to restore calm by ratcheting up the use of police force to counter worsening violence, which has featured attacks by protesters against establishments linked to, or seen as supportive of, mainland China.
For weeks, speculation has swirled around whether Lam would be replaced or step down — and, even if she wanted to, whether Beijing would allow it. Lam sparked the crisis in the former British colony this year when she fast-tracked a bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. Hong Kong people took to the streets to oppose what they saw as an attempt to diminish their autonomy and relative freedoms that do not exist in mainland China.
Xi told Lam that “ending violence and chaos and restoring order remains the most important task for Hong Kong.” And he praised her for “leading her government to fulfill its duties, striving to stabilize the situation, and doing a lot of arduous work,” the official Xinhua News Agency reported Tuesday.
The meeting in Shanghai reinforced a sense of the Chinese leadership firmly holding course on several fronts through a tumultuous autumn. Last week, the ruling Communist Party concluded a Central Committee conclave that was notable for the absence of major announcements — except for a communique suffused with ideology and reiterating political backing for Xi.
Shen Chunyao, a top legislative official who deals with Hong Kong affairs, hinted that Beijing could return to two strategies it has previously attempted to shore up control over Hong Kong: encourage the city to pass a national security law and reinforce patriotic education for disaffected youth — measures that sparked protests when officials attempted to introduce them in the past.
On a spate of issues, including the Hong Kong crisis and the trade war with the United States, Xi appeared to be “persisting in what he’s doing and thinking the problem isn’t the policy direction, but implementation,” said Steve Tsang, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Nottingham who is critical of what he described as an ossification of policy debate in Beijing.
“It's like driving a car off the road and thinking it’s not going in the wrong direction — it’s just not driving fast enough,” he said.
On the trade front, Xi appeared Tuesday at a trade fair, where he toned down some of the sharper language previously aimed at Washington. But he also rolled out well-tread pledges to expand trade, lower tariffs and live up to regulatory overhauls that have opened the door for more foreign investment.
After he spoke, Xi sipped wine with French President Emmanuel Macron as he stressed China’s commitment to low tariffs and open global markets. At the expo were booths from 192 American companies, including household names such as General Electric and John Deere.
Even though the Trump administration this week talked up the chances of a “phase one” trade truce with China, Taoran Notes, a state-run blog believed to be published by officials close to China’s negotiating team, published a new post Tuesday reiterating a firm position: China will not budge on its consistent and “core” condition that President Trump remove existing tariffs as part of any deal.
“Any misjudgment on this issue could lead to repeated negotiations,” the outlet warned the U.S. administration.
Timothy Stratford, chair of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, played down the likelihood of a substantial deal. Despite Xi's trade-fair talk and China's promises to buy American agricultural products, China did not appear to be offering fixes to long-standing U.S. complaints, such as Beijing's subsidies for certain businesses, Stratford said.
“The more I'm hearing from the Chinese, the more I hear ‘we're actually doubling down on the economic model, we’re not going to change our state intervention in key industries,’ ” he said. “China is trying to welcome foreign investments and imports and doing it in very targeted ways. That doesn’t necessarily fix the systemic problems.”
Meanwhile in Hong Kong, one of Lam’s deputies, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung, said the fact that Xi made time to meet with Lam amid a trade agenda was “pretty reassuring to us.”
“The very fact that he is so busy, that he found time to meet, really is a vote of confidence,” he told reporters in Hong Kong.
After the meeting, the first between Lam and the top Chinese leader since the Hong Kong protests started in June, Xinhua carried photos of the two shaking hands and beaming smiles.
Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University, said Xi wanted to show he was digging in.
“He is personally taking responsibility for keeping her and contradicting rumors of her dismissal,” Cabestan said. “Xi has concluded that for the moment it is preferable to keep Carrie Lam than to change horses.”