Premier Li Keqiang has become the most senior Chinese official to publicly comment on the current crisis in Hong Kong.
During a press conference on Friday afternoon attended by visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Li told an auditorium packed with reporters in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing that Chinese people had the resources and resolve to take care of the nation’s own issues.
Li – China’s No.2 official after only Xi Jinping – oversees the day-to-day running of the Central People’s Government. He said the government had on multiple occasions spelled out its stance to safeguard the “One country, two systems” framework under which the former British enclave was governed.
He also reassured the principles of a high degree of autonomy and Hong Kong people administering the former colony, which are part of the deal agreed on by Beijing and London for Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Li reiterated Beijing’s unfailing support for the Hong Kong government to tackle violence and restore order to create the ground on which to sustain the city’s prosperity.
It is understood that Merkel brought up the issue of Hong Kong with Li during their talks earlier in the day and she looks likely to do the same when attending a banquet hosted by Xi in Zhongnanhai this evening.
Hong Kong weighs heavily on Merkel’s 12th trip to China, the last visit in her official capacity before passing the baton to a younger leader in 2021.
She said at the same press briefing that other than “One country, two systems”, the Sino-British Joint Declaration on the question of Hong Kong signed in 1984 would continue to be effective and legally-binding and Beijing should guarantee Hongkongers all the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law.
She also urged political dialogue to break the impasse in the city and prevent further escalation of violence, referring to the three months of mass demonstrations that have roiled Hong Kong, ignited by a now-scrapped China extradition bill.
“I indicated during the talks [with Li] that the rights and freedoms agreed upon in Hong Kong’s Basic Law should be safeguarded,” she said.
Prior to her visit, Hong Kong activists such as Joshua Wong and the city’s pan-democratic bloc urged Merkel to speak up for the city. In an open letter published in some of the biggest newspapers in Germany, they also warned her to tread carefully when encouraging trade and business with an “authoritarian and unjust regime.”
But Merkel reportedly declined to meet with supporters of Hong Kong protests and dissidents in Xinjiang and Tibet before heading to Beijing.
In a dramatic climbdown on Wednesday, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam reversed her stance and announced the official withdrawal of the extradition bill, conceding to one of five key demands from the city’s masses almost six months after it was tabled in the city’s legislature.
But Lam’s gesture of reconciliation is seen by many as “too little, too late” to defuse the tension, partly because she has refused an independent probe into alleged police brutality and shunned appeals not to enact a curfew-like draconian law to shut down the internet and ban rallies.
Berlin has always been vocal in rallying support for Hong Kong in the European Union and internationally, with its diplomats stationed in the city particularly outspoken about defending human rights and the city’s freedoms.
Germany’s decision to grant asylum status and non-refoulement protection to two pro-independence dissidents from Hong Kong – Ray Wong and Alan Li – in May 2018 was only revealed a year later but it still drew Beijing’s ire. The Hong Kong government insists that the pair are offenders who jumped bail after being charged with rioting and assaulting police.
Lam summoned a top German diplomat to her office in May to lodge a complaint about Berlin “undermining” Hong Kong’s international reputation. In protest, she reportedly canceled a visit to Berlin originally scheduled later this year.