Beijing says it 'firmly' supports Hong Kong leader

Beijing (AFP) –

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Beijing on Tuesday threw its backing behind Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam after an audio recording emerged of her saying she wanted to quit over three months of unrest in the semi-autonomous city.

But the Chinese central government also warned it would "never sit idly by" if the situation spins out of control and endangers national sovereignty.

"We firmly support Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam in leading the SAR (Special Administrative Region) government," Yang Guang, spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of China's central government, said at a press conference.

Hong Kong has endured dozens of sometimes violent pro-democracy protests triggered by opposition to Lam's bid to push through a law allowing extraditions to mainland China.

The demonstrations have evolved into a wider democracy campaign involving clashes between protesters and police, in the biggest challenge to China's rule over Hong Kong since the city's 1997 handover from the British.

Beijing has let the Hong Kong government and police handle the demonstrations but it has deployed elements of the People's Armed Police and armoured vehicles to the neighbouring Chinese city of Shenzhen -- a not-so-subtle hint that it could intervene if necessary.

"To end violence and chaos and restore order is the most pressing task in Hong Kong," Xu Luying, spokeswoman for the Hong Kong affairs office, said at the press conference.

"The central government will never allow the situation in Hong Kong to continue unabated," Xu said.

"If the situation continues to deteriorate and moves into the turmoil that endangers national sovereignty and security, that is beyond the control of the SAR government, the central government will never sit idly by," she added.

- 'Complex situation' -

China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) also has a permanent garrison based in Hong Kong which, under city law, can be deployed if the local government requests help to maintain social order.

"Now there is a view on the society that deploying the PLA is the end of the 'one country, two systems'. This is totally wrong," she said.

The Chinese government expressed its support for Lam after Reuters news agency released an audio recording of her telling business leaders last week that she wanted to step down and take responsibility for the unrest.

Lam herself insisted earlier on Tuesday she had no intention of stepping down.

"I told myself repeatedly in the last three months that I and my team should stay on to help Hong Kong," Lam told a press conference in the city.

Lam said she had "not even contemplated" discussing her resignation with the Chinese government, which gives Hong Kong a restricted form of autonomy.

Yang said Hong Kongers are allowed by law to protest as long as it is in a peaceful manner, but he lashed out at "criminal acts that unscrupulously challenge the bottom line" of the "one country, two systems" policy that governs the city.

"Positive change has emerged in Hong Kong, most importantly to put an end to violence," he said.

But, he added, "it must be pointed out that the situation remains complex."