Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday reiterated Beijing's support for Hong Kong's embattled leader Carrie Lam, as journalists hit out at their treatment at the hands of police during recent pro-democracy protests.
"The situation in Hong Kong in 2019 was the most complex and difficult since its return to the motherland," Xi told journalists in Beijing after meeting with Lam on Monday.
"The central government fully recognizes the courage and assumption of responsibility you have displayed in these exceptional times in Hong Kong," he said.
He said the ruling Chinese Communist Party is firmly behind the Hong Kong police force, which is the subject of growing calls for an independent inquiry into violence by police against protesters.
Xi said Beijing was "unwavering in supporting Hong Kong police in firmly upholding the law."
His support came as a police spokesman defended the pepper-spraying and beating up of a reporter from Hong Kong's Mad Dog Daily during clashes between police and protesters on Sunday.
Senior superintendent Kong Wing-cheung said the reporter had been verbally abusive to officers.
"His verbal abuse was very likely to cause a breach of the peace at the scene," Kong said. "So our officer had already given him a warning to stop his illegal or disorderly act. Unfortunately, he didn't follow the warning."
"After my officer sprayed the pepper spray, he had a bit of physical contact with my officer, so my officer decided to arrest him for obstructing a police officer."
But video footage of the incident cited by government broadcaster RTHK shows the reporter saying "I'm already on the pavement. How can I step back further?".
Controlling news, opinion
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) linked police violence against journalists to China's ongoing campaign to control and influence news and opinion beyond its borders.
"Police have repeatedly attacked reporters covering anti-government protests, so far without consequence," the CPJ said in a report released on Monday.
"Local journalists are concerned that Beijing will retaliate for their critical reporting by blocking them from entering the mainland to work, while international correspondents fear their permission to stay in Hong Kong could be taken away."
It said that while Hong Kong had once been seen as a "bastion of civil liberties" in the region, growing Chinese attempts to ramp up political influence had put the city's freedoms under strain. A similar process is occurring in democratic Taiwan, it said.
"The very rights of journalists are being taken away," the CPJ quoted Jimmy Lai, chair of Next Digital, which owns the pro-democracy Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily, as saying. "We were birds in the forest and now we are being taken into a cage."
Lam's talks with Xi came after growing media speculation that she would be forced to step down for failing to contain the six-month pro-democracy movement, that began with protests against plans to allow extradition to mainland China in early June.
'Hostile foreign forces'
State-run Chinese media has tried to characterize the anti-extradition movement, which later broadened to include demands for full democracy and an independent inquiry into police violence, as the work of a handful of pro-independence radicals bent on wreaking havoc at the instigation of "hostile foreign forces."
Masked frontline protesters built barricades across major roads in Kowloon's Mong Kok district on Sunday, while police responded with dozens of rounds of tear gas and baton charges against protesters' lines.
"In the last six months Hong Kong has been haunted by social unrest, disturbances and violence acts," Lam said after her meeting with Xi.
"So I spent a bit more time to give them an account of where things stand."
Reported by Tseng Yat-yiu and Lu Xi for RFA's Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.