Hong Kong Carrie Lam speaks at a news conference in Beijing. Chinese President Xi Jinping met Lam in Beijing on Monday, saying he recognised her courage to govern the Asian financial hub in these "most difficult" times. File photo: Jason Lee/Reuters.

HONG KONG - Chinese President Xi Jinping met Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam in Beijing on Monday, saying he recognised her courage to govern the Asian financial hub in these "most difficult" times.

"The situation in Hong Kong in 2019 was the most complex and difficult since its return to the motherland," Xi told local media in brief comments before the closed door session.

Lam's meetings come after Hong Kong police fired tear gas in late night street clashes with anti-government protesters on Sunday, as the former British colony's worst political crisis in decades drags on into a seventh month.

Hong Kong media have speculated that Lam's talks with Xi could yield fresh directives on the city's political crisis, including a possible cabinet reshuffle. Xi did not go into specifics, but reiterated his support for Lam despite some previous media reports suggesting she might be replaced.

"We will continue to be unwavering in supporting you to lead the Hong Kong special administrative government to govern in accordance with the law," said Xi as Lam listened next to him.

He added Beijing was "unwavering in supporting the Hong Kong police to firmly uphold the law", while expressing the hope for unity in Hong Kong to get the city back on the right path.

Earlier, Lam met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang who said Hong Kong was not yet out of the "dilemma" facing the city's ailing economy after months of sometimes violent protests.

TEAR GAS

Late on Sunday, groups of masked youths - blocked roads around Mong Kok district, prompting police to fire multiple rounds of tear gas and baton charge crowds.

Protesters are angry by what they see as Chinese meddling in freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Xi said that Lam had continued to uphold the "one country, two systems" principle that promises Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and liberties, such as freedom of the press, denied in the mainland under Chinese rule.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a report on Monday that press freedom in Hong Kong has come under an accelerating squeeze despite China's pledges to maintain an open society.

Large media properties have come under mainland Chinese ownership or influence, while targeted violence has underscored potential dangers for journalists who challenge China's wishes, the report said.

Asked about the report during a daily news briefing in Beijing on Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said he has not seen the report and that it was not worth refuting.

ECONOMIC DOWNTURN

The city, home to more than 7 million people, entered its first recession in a decade in the third quarter with tourism and retail particularly affected by the sometimes violent protests.

Hong Kong's International Airport reported its biggest fall in passenger numbers in more than a decade in November, official data released on Sunday showed.

Lam's administration has pledged HK$25 billion ($3.2 billion) in stimulus but analysts say it is unlikely to have a major impact as long as the unrest continues.

Some 7,000 licensed retail establishments out of 64,000 say they will be forced to close down in the next six months, the Hong Kong Retail Management Association said earlier this month.

While the number of protests has eased in recent weeks, the movement still enjoys broad backing, with families, children and retirees still coming out to recent demonstrations.

Protesters have called on the government to address their demands, which include an independent inquiry into police behaviour and the implementation of universal suffrage. 

Reuters