By Clare Jim and Sharon Tam
HONG KONG (Reuters) – A reshuffle of Hong Kong’s cabinet is not an “immediate task”, the city’s Beijing-backed leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday, as she prepared to visit the Chinese capital for the first time since her government’s humiliation at local polls last month.
On Sunday, pro-democracy protesters participated in the largest mass rally since their candidates scored a landslide victory in the district elections, raising further doubts over how long Beijing is prepared to back Lam.
Declaring her priority was to restore law and order after more than six months of often violent protests, Lam said at a weekly media address that she would depart on Saturday for a regular visit to Beijing, where she would brief officials on Hong Kong’s biggest political crisis in decades.
With pressure mounting on her government, the Apple (NASDAQ:) Daily newspaper, owned by pro-democracy publishing tycoon Jimmy Lai, reported China was considering a Hong Kong cabinet reshuffle by the end of the year. Since the protests began until now, Lam has avoided mention of the prospects of changes to her team.
“My first priority now is really to restore law and order in Hong Kong and to ensure that Hong Kong could continue to move ahead, both economically and socially,” Lam said during her weekly media address.
“This is not an immediate task that I would accord a lot of attention to,” she said, when asked about a potential reshuffle.
Pro-democracy protests have rocked the Asian financial hub and former British colony almost daily for months.
Sparked by a now-withdrawn bill allowing extradition to China, the protests have widened into calls for greater democratic freedoms and have posed the starkest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
China has condemned the unrest and blamed foreign interference. In an editorial on Monday, the China Daily newspaper, which often reflects the views of Beijing, called on Hong Kong’s government to uphold the rule of law.
The protests are also taking an economic toll, pushing Hong Kong into recession and hitting the tourism and retail industries particularly hard.
Nearly 11% of licensed retailers in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese territory say they will have to close in the next six months, the Hong Kong Retail Management Association said on Monday.
Lam said she took comfort from the relatively peaceful protest on Sunday, although she condemned an arson attack on the city’s courts.
While the rally – which organisers said drew 800,000 people, while police estimated 183,000 – was largely peaceful, some protesters lit a fire outside court buildings and threw petrol bombs at government buildings.
Such a large and peaceful demonstration by people from all walks of life piles pressure on Lam and Beijing which have said the protests are stoked by radicals and rioters.
Activists plan another rally on Tuesday evening near the heart of the financial centre to mark International Human rights Day.
Police said late on Monday bomb disposal officers had defused two home-made devices on the grounds of a school in the district of Wan Chai. It was not immediately clear if the devices were linked to the protests.
More than 6,000 people have been arrested since the demonstrations escalated in June – nearly 40% students – while police have fired around 16,000 rounds of teargas and about 10,000 rubber bullets.