BEIJING China's third-ranked Communist Party leader Zhang Dejiang said Hong Kong shouldn't "politicize everything" and should instead focus on integrating its economy with China's, according to members of China's parliament who met with him on Sunday.
A day after Premier Li Keqiang pledged greater economic support for Hong Kong at the opening of annual parliamentary sessions in Beijing, Zhang said that while a recent riot in Hong Kong was a concern, it was one the city's government could handle.
"He (Zhang) said one needed to take a broader perspective to look at it, and to not politicize everything," said Rita Fan, a standing committee member of China's parliament chaired by Zhang.
Chinese media has blamed the riot in early February on "radical separatists" seeking to destabilize Hong Kong.
Other delegates who met with Zhang said that while Zhang didn't single out anyone for blame, there remained concern among Beijing's top leaders towards an embittered cluster of youth groups in Hong Kong using increasingly radical or violent means to demand greater autonomy.
China maintains Hong Kong is an inseparable part of China and as such resolutely opposes any moves towards independence.
Reuters was not able to contact Zhang for comment. Calls to China's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in Beijing after regular business hours went unanswered.
"They worry about the rise of separatism," said Lau Siu-kai, a former senior Hong Kong government adviser who met with Zhang on Friday with other members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a top parliamentary advisory body.
"If something big happens in Hong Kong that is seen as threatening national security, I don't expect China to wait, they may take the initiative to protect national security," Lau told Reuters.
Hong Kong was returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" framework granting it broad freedoms and an independent judiciary, though with Beijing having ultimate authority.
As for the disappearances of five Hong Kong booksellers who published gossipy books of China's leaders, the issue wasn't raised by Zhang despite lingering questions about the cases.
All of the booksellers recently surfaced to give interviews on Chinese television saying they had traveled voluntarily to China. But the British government maintains one of the men, Lee Bo, had been "involuntarily removed" from Hong Kong.
China's Foreign Ministry has said its law enforcement officials would never do anything illegal, especially not overseas, and called on foreign governments not to interfere in Hong Kong affairs.
"Even me, I still have some doubts ... most of the middle class actually have serious concerns," Ma Fung-kwok, a Chinese parliamentary delegate told Reuters in a Beijing hotel lobby.
"If someone broke the Basic Law and tried to do illegal enforcement in Hong Kong territory, this is something that shouldn't be allowed... Even if it's Chinese police."
Still, Andrew Yao, a Hong Kong businessman and member of China's parliament, said such concerns were overplayed, with Beijing intent to maintain Hong Kong's prosperity and stability.
"I don't see a pivot to a police state where they can come arrest us," Yao said.
Premier Li emphasized in his annual work report that Beijing would continue to "elevate" Hong Kong's role in China's economic development.
China's updated draft five-year development blueprint also mentioned a so-called "Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau big bay area" to boost economic synergies, as well as business and transport linkages between Hong Kong and southern China.
"He (Zhang) is saying 'look ... don't get politicized in all your social and economic issues, concentrate on developing your economy, ride with the tide of China rising'," said Maria Tam, a veteran Hong Kong delegate to China's parliamentary sessions.
(Reporting by James Pomfret; Editing by Kim Coghill)