By Farah Master and Clare Jim
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s chief secretary, Matthew Cheung, said on Tuesday he was disappointed with recent protest violence after a period of relative calm, as the jobless rate rose sharply in the Asian financial hub’s catering and tourism sectors.
Cheung, speaking at a weekly press briefing, was referring to a protest on Sunday when police fired tear gas in late night street clashes – the first time tear gas had been used in nearly two weeks.
“The work of stopping the violence has not yet been completed, we need to keep working on it. At the same time, we need to put effort on resolving deep rooted problems,” Cheung said.
His comments came after the city’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, met Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday. Xi offered Lam his support during these “most difficult times” of often violent anti-government protests.
China’s Premier Li Keqiang also called on the Hong Kong government to end the violence and address “deep-rooted issues in the economic and social development of Hong Kong”.
The financial hub has been embroiled in more than six months of anti-government protests which show no sign of abating and have weighed on the economy.
Unemployment rose 0.1% to 3.2% from September to November, government figures showed. The jobless rate in the hard-hit tourism and catering sectors rose to 5.2 percent and 6.2 percent respectively. This was the highest level in the catering sector in eight years.
“The labor market will be under even more pressure in the near term if the overall economy continues to weaken,” said Secretary for Labor and Welfare Law Chi-kwong in a statement.
“The government will monitor the developments closely.”
More protests are scheduled across the city into Christmas week and the new year.
Protesters are angry about what they see as an encroachment by China on wide ranging autonomy Hong Kong was guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” framework which governs the former British colony and the neighboring casino hub of Macau.
China has rejected the complaints and blamed other countries, including the United States, for inciting the protests.
Xi is due to begin a three-day visit to Macau on Wednesday and security has been tightened.
While the number of protests and the violence have eased in Hong Kong in recent weeks, the pro-democracy movement retains broad public backing for demands including an independent investigation into police behavior and the implementation of full universal suffrage.
The trigger for the protests was a proposed extradition law, that would have allowed Hong Kong citizens to be prosecuted in mainland courts. The bill, which the city later dropped, raised concern about what many Hong Kong people see as the undermining by Beijing of their freedoms.
The recent arrest by mainland security officials of a Hong Kong resident at a checkpoint on a bridge linking Hong Kong with Macau and the mainland city of Zhuhai has stirred new concerns.
Media reported the 53-year-old suspect was detained on Friday while traveling to Macau on a bus.
Cheung, asked about the arrest, said the matter was “entirely legal and justified” as it was beyond the city’s control and related to security matters on the mainland.
Mainland police said the person detained was part of a mobile phone smuggling syndicate.
Hong Kong residents have been on heightened alert to citizens disappearing over the border into mainland China since five city booksellers went missing in 2015. All later appeared in detention in China, with some showing up in video footage making what appeared to be forced confessions.
A former British consulate employee in Hong Kong, Simon Cheng, said in November that Chinese secret police beat him in an attempt to force him to give information about activists leading pro-democracy protests.
(Reporting by Clare Jim, Donny Kwok, Twinnie Siu, Marius Zaharia and Noah Sin; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Robert Birsel)