HONG KONG (Reuters) - China's top representative in Hong Kong said on Thursday the central government in Beijing maintained its support for Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is grappling with the city's greatest political crisis since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Millions of people have taken to the streets of Hong Kong in the past month in some of the largest and most violent demonstrations in decades to protest against a proposed extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial.
Wang Zhimin, director of the Liaison Office of the People’s Government in Hong Kong, criticised the violence that has broken out at some of the protests, including the July 1 break-in and ransacking of the territory's legislature.
"If we indulge crimes and breaches of the law, even whitewash, exonerate or give them support, that would be a blatant challenge to the rule of law in Hong Kong, which will eventually hurt the interest of all the Hong Kong people," he said.
"Hence, the central government firmly supports Chief Executive Carrie Lam and the Special Administrative Region government continue to govern effectively and actively make a difference in accordance with the law, firmly supports Hong Kong Police to do their duties in accordance with the law."
Wang was speaking at a pro-Beijing event in Hong Kong that was carried live on television.
Hong Kong was returned to China from Britain in 1997 as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) with the promise of a high degree of autonomy, although many in the territory say Beijing has tightened its grip in recent years.
Many in Hong Kong see the extradition bill as another step in increasing Beijing control over the financial hub.
In the face of the opposition to the bill, Lam suspended it in mid-June and this week said it was "dead". She has declined to formally withdraw it from the legislative process, though, leaving protesters unsatisfied.
In addition to calling for the withdrawal of the bill, demonstrators have asked for Lam to resign, for an inquiry into the use of force by the police at a June 12 protest and for detained and arrested protesters to be set free.
Analysts say that after Lam's handling of the turmoil over the extradition bill, her eventual departure - which will require Beijing's blessing - is only a matter of time.
Wang repeated a Chinese government assertion that "foreign forces" were behind the unrest, and a small number of Hong Kong people were willing to be used to create trouble.
"We should give the SAR government time and room. Everybody should unite and move forward, help each other out, and build Hong Kong, our common home," Wang said.
(Reporting By Noah Sin, John Ruwitch and Donny Kwok, Writing by Anne Marie Roantree)