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Hong Kong leader criticised at first public meeting

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam came under a barrage of criticism at a town hall session Thursday, with citizens accusing her government of turning a deaf ear to months of protests calling for democratic reforms in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory

Citizens accuse city's leader Carrie Lam of turning a deaf ear to calls for democratic reform

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends the first community dialogue session in Hong Kong on Thursday. She expressed hope that the two-hour dialogue would help bring change for a better Hong Kong. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam came under a barrage of criticism at a town hall session Thursday, with citizens accusing her government of turning a deaf ear to months of protests calling for democratic reforms in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory

The community dialogue with 150 participants, selected randomly from over 20,000 applicants, was the first since massive protests began in June sparked by an extradition bill that the government has now promised to withdraw.

Protesters have refused to stop demonstrating until other demands including direct elections for the city's leaders and police accountability are met.

Riot police carried equipment including shields, pepper spray and tear gas canisters into Queen Elizabeth Stadium in the Wan Chai area. Authorities also set up X-ray machines and metal detectors to ensure participants did not bring banned items inside, such as umbrellas, helmets and gas masks — gear used by protesters.

The security measures came as hundreds of students and others formed human chains at roads near the stadium, chanting slogans expressing their demands. Some protesters later marched outside the stadium and continued chanting slogans as the dialogue began.

Anti-government protesters wear masks outside the venue of the first community dialogue held by Lam in Hong Kong on Thursday. Many protesters say the dialogue is meaningless if the government refuses to accept their remaining demands. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

In her opening remarks, Lam expressed hope that the two-hour dialogue would help bring change for a better Hong Kong. The session, broadcast live, was the first in a series of dialogues toward reconciliation, she said.

Critics called the dialogue a political show to appease protesters before major rallies planned this weekend ahead of China's National Day celebrations on Oct. 1.

"This is not just a PR show but aimed to bring change" so Hong Kong can be a better country, Lam said. She said the dialogue was to identify deep-seated economic and social problems that contributed to the protests, now entering a fourth month.

Increasingly violent protests 

The protests have turned increasingly violent in recent weeks as demonstrators lobbed gasoline bombs at government buildings, vandalized public facilities and set street fires, prompting police to respond with tear gas and water cannons. More than 1,500 people, including children as young as 12, have been detained.

The extradition bill, which would have allowed some criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial, is viewed by many as an example of growing Chinese interference in the city's autonomy under the "one country, two systems" framework introduced when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

An anti-government protester holds up a placard denouncing Lam outside the venue on Thursday. (Jorge Silva/Reuters)

Many protesters say the dialogue is meaningless if the government refuses to accept their remaining demands.

"To Hong Kong people, it's a joke," said Bonnie Leung of the Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized several massive rallies. "If she really wants to communicate with Hong Kong people, all she has to do is to open her door. We are right outside."

The Civil Human Rights Front has received police approval for a rally on Saturday and has applied for another major march on Oct. 1. Police banned the last two rallies planned by the group, but protesters turned up anyway, and the peaceful gatherings later degenerated into chaos.

China has accused the United States and other foreign powers of being behind the riots.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang on Thursday warned the U.S. Congress to halt work on a bill that proposes economic sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials found to have suppressed democracy in Hong Kong.

The foreign affairs committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate approved the Hong Kong Human Rights Acts on Wednesday, setting the stage for votes in both chambers.

Geng said at a daily briefing in Beijing that the move was an endorsement of Hong Kong's radical forces, and accused Washington of seeking to "mess up Hong Kong and contain China's development."

"We will forcefully fight back against any U.S. attempt to harm China's interests," he said.

Tourism impact

The protests have taken a heavy toll on some businesses as tourists stay away. Cathay Pacific, the city's flagship carrier, has been the biggest corporate casualty after China demanded it suspend staff involved in the protests.

Cathay CEO Rupert Hogg and chairman John Slosar have since left the company.

Rail operator MTR Corp. has also suffered, with passenger numbers on the high-speed rail link to mainland China plunging 30 per cent to 1.14 million people in August from July.

Passengers on the Airport Express, which links the city to the international airport where protesters have disrupted operations, were down 10 per cent over the same period to 1.3 million people.

Riot police detain a woman as anti-government protesters gather at Sha Tin Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station to demonstrate against the railway operator, which they accuse of helping the government, in Hong Kong, on Wednesday. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

MTR has at times suspended city rail services during the protests, preventing some demonstrators from gathering and making it a target of attack, with protesters vandalizing stations and setting fires near some exits.

The rail operator halted services at Sha Tin station on Wednesday night after protesters vandalized facilities there for a second time since the weekend.

Train services resumed on Thursday.

The Asian financial hub marks the fifth anniversary this weekend of the start of the "Umbrella" protests, a series of pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 that failed to wrestle concessions from Beijing.

Wile files from The Associated Press

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