HONG KONG—Hong Kong residents turned on leader Carrie Lam on Sept. 26, criticizing her for curbing electoral freedoms as she began the first “open dialogue” session with the public in a bid to end more than three months of sometimes violent protests.
Lam nodded attentively in the town hall-like gathering as speaker-after-speaker accused her administration of ignoring the public and exacerbating a crisis that has no end in sight.
“The whole storm was caused by the extradition bill initiated by the government,” Lam said at the British colonial-era indoor Queen Elizabeth Stadium. “If we want to walk away from the difficulty and find a way out, the government has to take the biggest responsibility to do so.”
Protests over the now-shelved extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial have evolved into broader calls for full democracy, in a stark challenge to China’s Communist Party leaders.
Protesters are angry about what they see as creeping Chinese interference in Hong Kong, which returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula intended to guarantee freedoms that are not enjoyed on the mainland.
Outside, crowds of black-clad protesters chanted: “Hong Kong people, add oil,” a slogan meaning “keep your strength up.”
Beijing-backed Lam was holding talks with 150 members of the community, with speakers dressing down Lam on a number of fronts including curbs on electoral freedoms, ignoring public opinion, and refusing to allow an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality during the protests. One woman called on Lam to resign, saying she was no longer fit to lead.
“We Still Care”
Lam listened, taking notes, before responding on occasion. She appealed for people to give her government a chance, while emphasizing Hong Kong still had a bright future and a strong rule of law.
“I hope you all understand that we still care about Hong Kong society. Our heart still exists,” she said. “We will maintain our care for this society.”
She stressed again, however, that she sees no need at the moment for an independent inquiry, with an existing police complaint mechanism sufficient to meet public concerns.
City rail services resumed on Thursday after being halted on Wednesday night at Sha Tin station, where protesters vandalized fittings for the second time this week.
Rail operator MTR has at times suspended city rail services during the protests, preventing some demonstrators from gathering and thus making it a target of attack, with protesters vandalizing stations and setting fires near some exits.
When violence has flared, police have responded with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.
Hong Kong is on edge ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, with authorities eager to avoid scenes that could embarrass the central government in Beijing. Activists have planned a whole host of protests on the day.
The Asian financial hub also marks the fifth anniversary this weekend of the start of the “Umbrella” protests, a series of pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 that failed to wrest concessions from Beijing.
Resident Poon Yau-lok, 62, was skeptical that Thursday’s talks would make any difference.
“They wouldn’t listen when 200,000 people marched on the street,” she told Reuters. “Why would they listen to just 150?”
By Felix Tam and James Pomfret