By Sharon Lam and Clare Jim
HONGKONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam did not rule out a cabinet reshuffle on Tuesday but said restoring law and order was her top priority, as the Chinese-ruled city grapples with more than six months of sometimes violent anti-government protests.
Beijing-backed Lam was speaking two days after the largest anti-government rally in the Asian financial hub since local elections last month gave a resounding show of support for the pro-democracy movement.
With pressure mounting on her government, the Apple Daily on Tuesday reported that Beijing was considering a Hong Kong cabinet reshuffle by the end of the year to try to address the unrest.
Lam said she would depart on Saturday for a regular visit to Beijing, where she would brief mainland officials on Hong Kong’s biggest political crisis in decades.
“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.
A cabinet reshuffle was not an “immediate task”, she added, coming the closest since the unrest broke out in June to conceding that changes in her leadership team were on the cards.
The almost daily protests have helped drive Hong Kong’s economy into recession and taken a heavy toll on retailers, as many shops have been forced to close early amid security concerns and tourists stay away.
Some 7,000 licensed retailers out of 64,000 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 that were complete and ready to be used. 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.
(Additional reporting by Donny Kwok and Farah Master, Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Stephen Coates)