China's Xi: Hong Kong had its 'grimmest' year since handover

Chinese President Xi Jinping has said Hong Kong has faced its "grimmest and most complex year” since the former British colony was returned to China, before reiterating his support for the semi-autonomous city's leader

BEIJING -- Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated his support for Hong Kong's embattled leader on Monday even as he declared that the former British colony has faced its “grimmest and most complex year” since its return to China.

Xi praised Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam for holding fast to the principle of “one country, two systems,“ and for courage and commitment during an “extraordinary period” for Hong Kong, where Lam has faced harsh criticism for how she has handled months of fiery anti-government protests.

Lam briefed Xi and Premier Li Keqiang during her first visit to Beijing since pro-democracy candidates swept local Hong Kong elections last month in a clear rebuke of her administration.

Hong Kong has been “haunted by this social unrest,” Lam said at an evening news briefing, adding that the Chinese leaders called the situation “unprecedented.”

“Given the severity of the situation and the difficulties that we are facing, I can say that the leaders are fully appreciative of the efforts needed," she said. “I am heartened because we know that our work to stop the violence hasn't ended. We are not out of this crisis yet.”

Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” framework that promises the city more democratic rights than are allowed on the mainland. In recent years, however, the arrests of booksellers and activists have stoked fears of a growing encroachment by the ruling Communist Party.

The mass demonstrations began in June in response to proposed legislation that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be tried for crimes in mainland China. While Lam has since withdrawn the bill, protesters have continued calling for broader democratic reforms and an independent inquiry into accusations of police brutality.

On Monday, Lam again rejected calls for the investigation, a key demand of the movement. A police watchdog council that's probing complaints should be “given space and time” to complete its report to the government by early next year, she said.

A group of international experts quit the council last week over concerns that the watchdog lacks capacity and independence. The council has no powers to ask for documents or summon witnesses.

The government is also seeking candidates for an independent review committee that will study the issues underlying the crisis, Lam said. Some people fear they would be targeted by anti-government protesters if they join the committee.

A lull in clashes between police and protesters ended Sunday. Police said protesters threw bricks and that officers responded with tear gas. Protesters also set fires, blocked roads and smashed traffic lights with hammers.

Video footage showed truncheon-wielding riot officers squirting pepper spray directly at a photographer in a group of journalists and ganging up to beat and manhandle him. Police alleged that the photographer was verbally abusive and obstructed officers and said he was arrested. His employer, Hong Kong online news site Mad Dog Daily, said he acted legally and heeded police instructions.

Police said they arrested 31 people Sunday and 99 over the past week, taking the total number arrested since June to beyond 6,100. They also said that officers fired 27 tear gas rounds on Sunday.

Protesters said they don’t expect Beijing leaders to ditch Lam in the foreseeable future, because that would be an embarrassment for them and hand too large a victory to the protest movement.

“If they did change, let her step down, then that means that it’s a loss in the battle,” protester Fong Lee, a social worker, said at a rally in Hong Kong on Sunday. “The Communist Party wouldn’t do that.”

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Leicester reported from Hong Kong. Associated Press journalist Dake Kang and researcher Shanshan Wang in Beijing and AP writer Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, contributed to this report.