Premier Li Keqiang told Hong Kong's embattled leader on Monday to investigate the city's deep-rooted social problems and end the violence and chaos blighting its streets.
In his first meeting with Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor since the protests erupted in June, Li said the unrest had harmed the city in many different ways, striking a "serious blow" to the economy.
He told Lam she had "risen to the challenges", but demanded her government urgently probe the social issues that he said had become entrenched in Hong Kong society.
The talks, in the Hong Kong room of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, came on the third day of Lam's annual duty visit to mainland China.
Li told her: "The central government fully acknowledges the efforts made by you and the city's government.
"Hong Kong has yet to come out from the difficulties. The city's government must continue to make efforts in stopping violence and ending chaos in accordance with the law, and restore order.
"It must also study with urgency the deep-rooted conflicts and problems in Hong Kong's socio-economic development, and safeguard the city's long-term prosperity and stability."
But Li also lamented the harm the protests had done to society as a whole.
"Obvious recession has emerged in Hong Kong's economy, and many sectors were dealt a serious blow. We can say that the city is facing unprecedented, serious and complicated situations," the premier added.
He told Lam: "You have been leading the government in doing the utmost to safeguard social stability, and rolled out a series of measures to help businesses and stabilise employment. It can be said that you rose to the challenges."
Vice-Premier Han Zheng and Wang Zhimin, director of Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong, and Zhang Xiaoming, director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office were also present at the meeting, which had a picture of Hong Kong at night as the visual backdrop.
The chief executive is expected to meet President Xi Jinping at the Zhongnanhai leadership compound on Monday afternoon.
In response to Li, Lam admitted Hong Kong had faced a very grim situation on the political, economic and social front over the past year.
The city has recorded a significant economic downturn over the first six months, she said, but attributed it to external factors, such as the ongoing US-China trade war.
"There would be a more significant downturn in the third quarter because of the internal social unrest," Lam added.
More than 6,000 people have been arrested in connection with the protests, which were triggered by the now-withdrawn extradition bill and have evolved into a wider, increasingly violent, anti-government campaign.
Coupled with the US-China trade war, the unrest has pushed the city into a recession.
The economy shrank 3.2 per cent in the third quarter, from the previous one, while GDP was down 2.9 per cent in the third quarter year on year, the biggest contraction in a decade.
After the pro-Beijing camp suffered a humiliating defeat at the district council elections last month, protests have been largely peaceful. However, police foiled two bomb plots in less than a week this month, and on Sunday used tear gas against a crowd in Mong Kok and pepper spray in Sha Tin to drive away radicals vandalising restaurants.
In September, Li said Beijing would safeguard its "one country, two systems" governing principle on Hong Kong, and support the local government's efforts to end the crisis engulfing the city, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited China and called for the "utmost" effort to avoid violence.
On Monday evening, Lam is expected to hold a media briefing after meeting Xi. She will return to Hong Kong on Tuesday morning.
The chief executive also met the vice-premier and Zhang over dinner on Saturday.
A year ago, Li praised Lam for her leadership of the city, highlighting her promotion of innovation and efforts to tackle livelihood issues.
Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.