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Top Chinese Official Slams Hong Kong Independence Calls

Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, left, looks at Zhang Dejiang, right, chairman of China's National People's Congress, during a banquet in Hong Kong, Wednesday, May 18, 2016.

A top Chinese official visiting Hong Kong warned Wednesday against heeding calls for independence for the semiautonomous Chinese region.

Zhang Dejiang, who is the Communist Party's No. 3 official and responsible for Hong Kong affairs, made his remarks at a dinner banquet attended by senior city government officials and business leaders.

Zhang is making a three-day "inspection visit" to the former British colony, where discontent is rising over Beijing's tightening grip on the city. Tension remains high two years after Beijing said it would not allow unrestricted elections for the city's top leader, a decision that sparked pro-democracy street protests that brought parts of the city to a standstill for 11 weeks. Some radical "localist" groups have recently started calling for greater autonomy and even independence for the specially administered Chinese region.

"There are a very small number of people rejecting 'one country' and resisting the central government. They're even flying the banner of Hong Kong independence," Zhang said. "This is not a matter of localism, but it's separatism under the name of localism."

Zhang warned that anyone who broke the law should be punished, though he did not refer to any specific laws. He said the "one country, two systems" framework, under which Beijing allows Hong Kong to have a high degree of control over its own affairs, and civil liberties unseen on the mainland, is in the city's best interests.

Hong Kong authorities have ratcheted up security for Zhang's visit, with as many as 8,000 police officers deployed for the visit, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported, citing an unidentified police source.

Earlier in the day, a group of about 100 protesters who tried to get close to the business conference where Zhang was delivering a speech were kept well away in a designated protest zone.