Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday threw the weight of his public support behind visiting Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam and her administration, as official state media denounced former protest leader Joshua Wong as a "separatist."
"The fact that President Xi met the chief executive last night in Shanghai underlines in fact the importance that the central ... government and President Xi himself attaches to Hong Kong," Lam's second-in-command Matthew Cheung told journalists on Tuesday.
"He has a high degree of confidence in the chief executive and certainly recognized the work, positive work, of the present government, and also particularly the political teams, all these are pretty reassuring to us," Cheung said.
The meeting came amid speculation that Beijing was preparing to remove Lam as anti-government protests entered their fifth month.
Many in Hong Kong say Lam bears the greatest responsibility for the government's handling of the political crisis sparked by now-withdrawn amendments to the city's extradition laws, which would have allowed alleged criminal suspects to be sent to face trial in mainland China.
Even though Lam has withdrawn the hated extradition law changes, the protests have morphed into broader demands for democratic reforms, including universal suffrage and a fully independent investigation into complaints of police violence and abuse of arrested protesters.
Xi said Lam has "done a lot of hard work" and has tried to stabilize the situation in Hong Kong, state-run news agency Xinhua reported.
"Ending violence and chaos and restoring order remain the most important task for Hong Kong at present," Xi was quoted as saying.
Lam told reporters that Xi had also expressed concern over the violence during the meeting Monday night in Shanghai, where both leaders are attending a trade fair.
"During a very short meeting with President Xi Jinping, he expressed care and concern about Hong Kong," she said.
Xi's in charge
He also "expressed support for the various actions taken by (the Hong Kong government)."
Hong Kong current affairs commentator Liu Ruishao said that the meeting showed Xi asserting his authority with regard to the situation in Hong Kong, however.
"Xi Jinping ... has to let the people of Hong Kong know that he is in charge," Liu said. "He is also telling Hong Kong officials, especially the police, that the central government is relying on them."
He said Xi's support sprang from political necessity.
"The central government needs Lam to carry out its orders, both its political commands and a host of other things," Liu said. "For example measures to improve people's lives and the public mood, and so on."
"Even if they aren't at all happy with Lam, they can't just get rid of her," he said.
Hong Kong barrister Anson Wong said Lam still has a lot of discretionary power over how she achieves those things, however.
"Naturally, she has to put the public interest first, as well as the special circumstances that will allow her to use that discretionary power," Wong said. "There is nothing in the Basic Law that says that the chief executive has to take certain things into account, actually."
Dickson Sing, associate social sciences professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said Beijing is taking a pragmatic view.
"There is still a strong chance Lam could step down early," Sing said. "Xi Jinping may have given her the appearance of support for the short term, but she could still step down in five months' time."
Wong declared 'separatist'
Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong agreed.
"The [ruling Chinese Communist Party] central leadership can support you today and replace you tomorrow," Wong said, but warned that blind support for Lam from Beijing could backfire badly.
"I think the central government should remove the chief executive and other accountable officials ... reshuffle the Executive Council (ExCo), restart political reforms and meet citizen demands, including dealing with police violence," she said.
State news agency Xinhua meanwhile described Joshua Wong, a former leader of the 2014 Umbrella movement for fully democratic elections, as a "separatist" who was correctly barred from running in forthcoming district elections.
"Judging by his consistent behaviors over the past years, Wong, the secretary-general of Demosisto, is a true separatist advocating for Hong Kong independence'," the agency said in an opinion article.
It accused Wong of "colluding with foreign forces [and] giving pro-secessionist speeches" during the recent protest movement.
"The District Council is not a platform to advocate 'Hong Kong independence'," it said.
Public anger has continued to simmer in Hong Kong as Beijing has warned of a political crackdown as anti-government protests enter their fifth month. Police have made more than 3,000 arrests since early June amid ongoing criticism of the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray by riot police against people on Hong Kong's streets.
A recent opinion survey carried out by the Institute of Asia Pacific Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong showed that most respondents thought Lam had failed to do her job properly, while 32 percent gave her "zero" in an appraisal of her performance.
More than 66 percent of 700 respondents expressed "dissatisfaction" with Lam's administration, compared with 33 percent in the same period last year.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung and Man Hoi-tsan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.