Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam faced a critical crowd on Thursday (Sept 26) at a public dialogue with some 130 people, as hundreds more protested outside the venue.
The town hall was the first in a series of meetings promised by Mrs Lam in a bid to reconnect with society and assuage public anger. At times looking uncomfortable when faced with angry members of the public, Mrs Lam was joined by three other senior officials.
Of the 30 participants given a chance to speak, about a dozen called for an independent inquiry into the police’s use of force, some calling the Independent Police Complaints Council a “toothless tiger”.
Mrs Lam repeatedly said the council should still be allowed to do its job, while assuring those present that it would conduct a fair and thorough investigation.
She admitted there has been a “disconnect” between Hong Kongers and the government, and vowed to rebuild the trust.
But she said that not all of the five demands – a complete withdrawal of the extradition Bill, an independent inquiry into police action, to not call protesters rioters, for an amnesty to be granted to those charged with rioting and for universal suffrage – can be met because those who break the law must pay the price.
Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip said that as for questions on democratic reforms, there needs to be a balance in the “one country, two systems” policy to achieve that goal.
The policy enacted before Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China in 1997 ensures that the city enjoys freedoms – such as the right to protest and free speech – unseen on the mainland.
Participants at the dialogue had been randomly picked from over 20,000 applicants. While 150 people were selected, around 130 turned up. Most who showed up appeared to be middle-aged, and some wore masks.
With the town hall held at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in a residential part of Wan Chai district, schools and shops around the venue shut early to avoid getting caught up in any disruption.
The stadium had been shut for the entire day for security reasons, with public parking spots nearby cordoned off by police.
To enter, attendees had to pass through airport-like security, with bags X-rayed and checked.
As the talks got under way, hundreds gathered outside shouting protest slogans, with more assembling around Wan Chai to form human chains.
The protests in Hong Kong were sparked in June by a contentious extradition Bill that would have allowed for fugitives to be handed over to several jurisdictions, including mainland China.
This week would mark the 17th weekend of protests, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of 2014’s Umbrella Movement, a series of pro-democracy demonstrations.
Protests have shown little sign of slowing, as many continue to express unhappiness against the government while calling for democratic reforms.
Protest organiser Civil Human Rights Front said on Thursday that its rally at Tamar Park tomorrow, to mark the anniversary of the start of the Umbrella Movement, has been given the green light by police.
The Chinese-ruled territory is on edge ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China next Tuesday (Oct 1), with the authorities eager to avoid scenes that could embarrass the central government in Beijing.
China says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” arrangement and denies meddling. It has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of inciting the unrest.
The protests have also brought to the fore social issues plaguing Hong Kong, including lack of affordable housing and a growing income gap.
With the unrest splitting society, businesses and the economy have been hard hit as tourists stay away.
At the end of the session, Mrs Lam thanked participants, saying it was a “good first step” in a long road ahead, as some in the audience shouted a protest slogan: “Five demands, not one less.”
Participant Sam Ng, 38, who got to ask a question, said he was glad there was a platform for such a dialogue, but admitted that results might be limited. He said that Mrs Lam seemed genuine.
“She feels very afraid that there will be people getting hurt or dying in protests. This point, I feel, is genuine,” he told journalists after the session.