Tens of thousands of Hong Kong protesters plead for U.S. help

By John Ruwitch and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of mostly young pro-democracy activists rallied in Hong Kong on Monday in the first legal protest since the introduction of colonial-era emergency laws and pleaded for help from the United States.

They chanted “Fight for Freedom, Fight for Hong Kong” as they gathered peacefully near central government offices in the Admiralty district of the Chinese-ruled city only hours after police said violent protests had escalated to a “life-threatening level”.

A small bomb exploded and a policeman was stabbed on Sunday night, the latest violence in four months of unrest in which police have responded to petrol bombs and rocks with tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon and sometimes live rounds.

Emergency laws introduced on Oct. 5 banning face masks at rallies and carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail sparked some of the worst violence since the unrest started.

On Monday night, many protesters wore face masks in defiance of the ban.

Speakers urged the United States to pass a Hong Kong human rights act to ensure democracy for the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

“Make Hong Kong Great Again”, read one poster. Some protesters waved the U.S. flag and carried “Uncle Sam” recruitment posters reading “Fight for Freedom, Stand with HK”.

“All of the Hong Kong people feel hopeless and the government hasn’t listened to our voices so we need the USA to help us,” said protester Edward Fong, 28.

The protesters are angry at what they see as Beijing’s tightening grip on the city which was guaranteed 50 years of freedoms under the “one country, two systems” formula under which it returned to China. Beijing rejects the charge and accuses Western countries, especially the United States and Britain, of stirring up trouble.

The unrest poses the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. He warned that any attempt to divide China would be crushed.

“Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones,” Xi said in a meeting on Sunday with leaders in Nepal, where he was visiting, according to China’s state broadcaster CCTV.

‘THEY ARE RIOTERS, CRIMINALS’

In contrast to Monday night’s peaceful protest, rallies descended into chaos on Sunday with running skirmishes between protesters and police in shopping malls and on the streets.

Black-clad activists threw 20 petrol bombs at one police station, while others trashed shops and metro stations.

A crude explosive device, which police said was similar to those used in “terrorist attacks”, was remotely detonated as a police car drove past and officers were clearing roadblocks on Sunday night.

A police officer also had his neck slashed by a protester.

“Violence against police has reached a life-threatening level,” said Deputy Commissioner of Police Tang Ping-keung.

“They are not protesters, they are rioters and criminals. Whatever cause they are fighting for it never justifies such violence.”

Protests have attracted millions of people but have gradually become smaller in recent weeks. Yet violence by hardcore activists has risen, prompting debate over tactics. But they say they remained united.

“Violence is always undesirable, but in the case of Hong Kong, we have no other option,” said regular protester Jackson Chan, 21.

“In June, 2 million took to the street and demonstrated peacefully, yet the government showed a complete disregard to the public opinion… Escalation of violence is inevitable,” Chan said.

On Monday, speakers called on U.S. senators to vote for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, saying it would be their “most powerful weapon”.

The bill supports human rights in Hong Kong with measures under consideration such as annual reviews of its special economic status and sanctions on those who undermine its autonomy. The text will not be finalised until it passes both houses of Congress and is signed by the president.

“We are exhausted and scared, many of us have been detained and tortured… We believe international help will come one day,” said one speaker.

Police have fired thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets at brick- and petrol bomb-throwing protesters and arrested more than 2,300 people since June, many teenagers. Two people have been shot and wounded.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam is due to deliver her annual Policy Address on Wednesday amid pressure to restore confidence in the government.

Hong Kong is facing its first recession in a decade because of the protests, with tourism and retail hardest hit.

(Additional reporting by Anne Marie Roantree and Donny Kwok in Hong Kong; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

Hong Kong protesters trap leader for hours in stadium after ‘open dialogue’

By Felix Tam and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong protesters chanting anti-government slogans trapped city leader Carrie Lam in a stadium for hours on Thursday after she held her first “open dialogue” with the people in a bid to end more than three months of often violent unrest.

Activists blocked roads and stood their ground despite police warnings, before beginning to disperse. More than four hours after the talks had ended, a convoy carrying Lam and other senior officials left the building under police guard.

Inside the British colonial-era Queen Elizabeth Stadium, residents had earlier chastised Lam, accusing her of ignoring the public and exacerbating a crisis that has no end in sight.

She had begun by saying her administration bore the heaviest responsibility for resolving the crisis.

“The whole storm was caused by the extradition bill initiated by the government,” Lam said. “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.

The demonstrations resumed after the dialogue session was over, with activists blocking roads around the stadium with iron railings and other debris.

The unrest followed an event that had been notable for not being the whitewash many predicted, with Lam directly facing off with an often critical and hostile audience, still aggrieved at the havoc they blame on the Beijing-backed leader and her team.

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, large crowds of black-clad protesters chanted: “Hong Kong people, add oil,” a slogan meaning “keep your strength up”, while encircling the sports stadium and blocking exits.

Police warned that they would use force but did not intervene.

The event saw Lam holding talks with 150 members of the community.

Speakers criticizing her for curbing electoral freedoms, ignoring public opinion and refusing to allow an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality. Several called on Lam to resign, saying she was no longer fit to lead.

“CALM DOWN”

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 saw no need at the moment for an independent inquiry, with an existing police complaint mechanism sufficient to meet public concerns.

She also reiterated there was no way she could bow to the demand for charges against those arrested for rioting to be dropped.

“I am not shirking responsibility, but Hong Kong really needs to calm down,” she said. “We have to stop sudden violence breaking out… Violation of the law will result in consequences we have to bear.”

She also conceded limits to what she could do.

“There are some things that me and my colleagues cannot influence in society … but the dialogue will continue.”

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.

CITY ON EDGE

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.

(Reporting by Felix Tam, James Pomfret, Anne Marie Roantree, Angie Teo, Poppy McPherson and Donny Kwok; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Peter Graff and Alex Richardson)

Hong Kong children form chains of protest as economic worries grow

Secondary school students hold placards as they join a human chain protesting against what they say is police brutality against protesters, after clashes at Wan Chai district in Hong Kong, China September 9, 2019. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

By Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of uniformed school students, many wearing masks, formed human chains in districts across Hong Kong on Monday in support of anti-government protesters after another weekend of clashes in the Chinese-ruled city.

Metro stations reopened after some were closed on Sunday amid sometimes violent confrontations, although the mood in the Asian financial hub remained tense.

Early on Monday, before school started, rows of students and alumni joined hands chanting “Hong Kong people, add oil”, a phrase that has become a rallying cry for the protest movement.

“The school-based human chain is the strongest showcase of how this protest is deep-rooted in society, so deep-rooted that it enters through the school students,” said Alan Leong, an alumnus of Wah Yan College in the city’s Kowloon district.

Three months of protests over a now withdrawn extradition bill have evolved into a broader backlash against the government and greater calls for democracy.

Police said they had arrested 157 people over the previous three days, including 125 males and 32 females aged 14 to 63, bringing the total number of arrests to more than 1,300.

The former British colony is facing its first recession in a decade as the protests scare off tourists and bite into retail sales in one of the world’s most popular shopping destinations.

Tourist arrivals plunged 40% in August year on year, said Paul Chan, the city’s finance secretary, with sustained clashes blocking roads and paralyzing parts of the city. Disruptions at the city’s international had also hit the tourism industry.

“The most worrying thing is that the road ahead is not easily going to turn any better,” Chan said in his blog on Sunday, noting that some hotels had seen room rates plunge up to 70%.

Activists started fires in the street and vandalized a Mass Transit Railway (MTR) station in the main business district of Central on Sunday after thousands rallied peacefully at the U.S. consulate, calling for help in bringing democracy to the special administrative region.

The students, brandishing posters with the protesters’ five demands for the government, called on authorities to respond to the promises of freedom, human rights and rule of law, promised when Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997. One of the five demands – to formally withdraw the extradition bill – was announced last week by embattled leader Carrie Lam, but protesters are angry about her failure to call an independent inquiry into accusations of police brutality against demonstrators.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet urged people to protest peacefully and called on authorities to respond to any acts of violence with restraint.

The protesters’ other demands include the retraction of the word “riot” to describe demonstrations, the release of all those arrested and the right for Hong Kong people to choose their own leaders.

A journalist wearing a hard hat and protective goggles at a police briefing condemned the use by police of pepper spray against media over the weekend.

‘CRUSHED’

In a rare public appearance, Lam walked around the central business district with the city’s Transport and Housing Secretary Frank Chan and MTR officials to inspect the damaged station, where she chatted with staff and commuters.

Dressed in a black suit, she examined electronic ticketing machines and boarded up windows smashed the previous day, according to footage by public broadcaster RTHK.

Following the demonstration at the U.S. consulate on Sunday, Hong Kong’s government warned foreign lawmakers not to interfere in the city’s internal affairs after thousands of protesters called on U.S. President Donald Trump to “liberate” the city.

Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland. Many Hong Kong residents fear Beijing is eroding that autonomy.

China denies the accusation of meddling in the city and says Hong Kong is an internal affair. It has denounced the protests, accusing the United States and Britain of fomenting unrest, and warned of the damage to the economy.

Chinese state media on Monday said Hong Kong was an inseparable part of China and any form of secessionism “will be crushed”.

The China Daily newspaper said Sunday’s rally was proof foreign forces were behind the protests and warned demonstrators should “stop trying the patience of the central government”.

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong was released from police custody after breaching bail conditions following his arrest in August when he was charged along with a number of other prominent activists for inciting and participating in an unauthorized assembly.

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States was monitoring events.

“The freedoms of expression and assembly are core values that we share with the people of Hong Kong, and those freedoms must be vigorously protected. As the president has said, ‘They’re looking for democracy and I think most people want democracy’,” the official said.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Anne Marie Roantree, Donny Kwok and Twinnie Siu; Additional reporting by Joseph Campbell in Hong Kong, Roberta Rampton in Washington and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Lincoln Feast, Robert Birsel)

Hong Kong readies for further protests after huge, peaceful rally

Riot police officers detain an anti-extradition bill protester during a demonstration in Tsim Sha Tsui neighbourhood in Hong Kong, China, August 11, 2019. REUTERS/Issei Kato

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong is gearing up for further protests this week after hundreds of thousands of anti-government demonstrators braved heavy rain to rally peacefully on Sunday, marking a change to what have often been violent clashes.

Sunday’s massive turnout, which organizers put at 1.7 million, showed that the movement still has widespread support despite chaotic scenes last week when protesters occupied the Chinese-ruled city’s airport.

Some activists had apologized for the airport turmoil and on Sunday night protesters could be seen urging others to go home peacefully.

Police said on Monday that while Sunday’s demonstration was mostly peaceful, there were breaches of the peace in the evening when some protesters defaced public buildings and aimed laser beams at officers.

It was a far cry from the violent clashes between protesters and riot police throughout the summer, with activists storming the legislature and targeting China’s main Liaison Office in the city. The weekend was also noteworthy for a lack of tear gas use by police.

The protests, which have presented one of the biggest challenges for Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012, began in June as opposition to a now-suspended bill that would allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts. They have since swelled into wider calls for democracy.

Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that promised wide-ranging freedoms denied to citizens in mainland China, including an independent judiciary, but many in the city believe Beijing has been eroding those freedoms.

Aside from Lam’s resignation, demonstrators have five demands – complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, a halt to descriptions of the protests as “rioting”, a waiver of charges against those arrested, an independent inquiry and resumption of political reform.

One protester, speaking at a “citizen’s press conference” on Monday, was asked what path the protests would take now, peaceful or violent.

“We have started our rallies very peacefully but after two and a half months it seems that the Hong Kong government has not responded to our five demands so one thing leads to another and it may cause escalation,” the speaker, named Wang, said.

“If you ask me, I personally hope there will be a quick resolution to this from the government so we don’t have to protest anymore.”

On Sunday, protesters spilling out from Victoria Park, the designated rally area on Hong Kong island, streamed onto major thoroughfares toward the city’s financial center, chanting for Beijing-backed leader Carrie Lam to step down.

Police estimated the size of the crowd in Victoria Park at 128,000 at its peak, although that excludes the masses of umbrella-carrying demonstrators who packed the streets.

CHINESE FORCES ACROSS THE BORDER

The Hong Kong government said in a statement on Sunday night it was important to restore social order as soon as possible and that it would begin talks with the public and “rebuild social harmony when everything has calmed down”.

The Global Times, a nationalist Chinese tabloid published by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, attributed the change in the character of Sunday’s protest to the presence of Chinese paramilitary forces, which have been conducting exercises in Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong.

“This was widely seen as a stern warning to the violent elements in Hong Kong,” it said, adding that a backlash from Hong Kong residents over last week’s airport occupations was another factor.

The Chinese Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper warned again in an editorial on Monday that hostile foreign influences were inciting the protest movement. Beijing has accused some countries, including the United States, of fomenting unrest.

U.S. President Donald Trump hinted on Sunday that the White House would like to see Beijing resolve the protests before the world’s two largest economies could reach a trade deal.

“I would like to see Hong Kong worked out in a very humanitarian fashion,” Trump said. “I think it would be very good for the trade deal.”

Further demonstrations are planned in coming weeks, including protests planned by Christians and even an accountants’ group.

Police have come under criticism for using increasingly aggressive tactics to break up demonstrations, but there was a minimal police presence on Sunday and no arrests were made. More than 700 people have been arrested since June.

The central government has sought to deepen integration between the mainland and the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and nearby Macau, a former Portuguese-run enclave which returned to China in 1999. The State Council called on Monday for greater development of the so-called Greater Bay Area and to enrich the “one country, two systems” policy.

China has also put strong pressure on big companies, especially Cathay Pacific Airways <0293.HK>. CEO Rupert Hogg quit in a shock move last week after Beijing targeted the airline over staff involvement in the protests.

Hogg’s sudden departure was announced by Chinese state television on Friday and was seen as a signal to other multinationals, such as HSBC Holdings and Jardine Matheson Holdings, to support Beijing.

Cathay also fired two pilots for taking part in the protests.

Shares in Cathay rose more than 2% early on Monday before paring gains to be down 0.6%. Jeffries analysts wrote in a note on Monday that it maintained its “buy” rating on Cathay and that it expected the company to remain profitable.

(Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Michael Perry and Nick Macfie)

Special Report: Rudderless rebellion – Inside the Hong Kong protesters’ anarchic campaign against China

FILE PHOTO: Police fire tear gas at anti-extradition bill protesters during clashes in Sham Shui Po in Hong Kong, China, August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

By James Pomfret, Greg Torode, Clare Jim and Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Ah Lung spends his days working as a clerk for a Hong Kong shipping firm. At night, he dons a mask, black helmet, and body armor, and heads out into the streets to face off against the city’s riot police.

The 25-year-old activist has been a constant presence at the often violent protests that have rocked Hong Kong this summer, rallying comrades, building barricades and rushing from district to district in a frantic game of cat-and-mouse with police.

Ah Lung, who would only identify himself by his nickname, which means “dragon” in Cantonese, is representative of a growing number of discontented young Hong Kongers who are fueling a protest movement that, unlike its predecessors, is taking aim directly at Beijing.

It is a movement without clearly discernible leaders or structure, making it difficult for the authorities to effectively target — and increasingly hard for the protesters themselves to manage.

While it has the support of established pro-democracy groups, the amorphous movement is fueled by activists like Ah Lung – young Hong Kongers who operate independently or in small groups and adapt their tactics on the run.

“We’re not so organized,” Ah Lung said. “Every day changes, and we see what the police and the government do, then we take action.”

“My dream is to revive Hong Kong, to bring a revolution in our time,” Ah Lung said. “This is the meaning of my life now.”

Through interviews with dozens of protesters like Ah Lung and reporting from dozens of protests, Reuters has pieced together a picture of how this movement functions and the mindset driving it.

‘FREE HONG KONG’

The protests, which started as a peaceful rebuke of the Hong Kong government back in April, have evolved into a direct challenge to Communist Party rule over this former British colony.

With slogans such as “Free Hong Kong” and “Hong Kong is not China,” Ah Lung and his fellow protesters have made clear they reject a future in which Hong Kong is inexorably absorbed into the mainland giant, eventually becoming just another Chinese city.

Protesters are provocatively calling the demonstrations an “era of revolution,” a formulation that has infuriated a ruling Chinese Communist Party determined to crush any challenge to its monopoly on power.

Scenes once unthinkable in Hong Kong are now commonplace: The city’s international airport being shut down this week after a prolonged occupation by protesters; a Chinese official publicly suggesting that aspects of some of the protests were terrorism; the legislature stormed and ransacked by protesters; police officers repeatedly baton-charging crowds of protesters and unleashing torrents of tear gas in famed shopping districts.

On Tuesday, protesters who managed to shut down the airport also attacked a Chinese man for being a suspected undercover agent. He was identified as a reporter for the Global Times, a tabloid controlled by Beijing, highlighting how activists are making the Chinese government the target of their protests.

It also brought another issue into focus: the risks of waging a leaderless rebellion. Demonstrators later apologized for the disruptions at the airport, apparently concerned that their chaotic protests might alienate broader sections of the Hong Kong public who had been supporting them.

“The movement has a large degree of self-restraint and solidarity, but of course that’s very conditional,” said Samson Yuen, a political scientist at Lingnan University in Hong Kong who has conducted surveys of protesters to understand their motives and support base.

“If certain actions spin out of control, if say someone dies from it, then that might be a game-changer.”

ONE-COUNTRY, TWO-SYSTEMS

Under the “one-country, two-systems” formula, China promised Hong Kong it would enjoy autonomy for 50 years after its handover from Britain in 1997.

Unlike those who negotiated the deal, for young protesters born after the handover that deadline will fall in the middle of their lives. And, as Beijing tightens its grip on Hong Kong, the future they see careening toward them is that of an authoritarian mainland China with curbs on the freedoms and rights they now enjoy.

“In 2047, if it returns to China, real Hong Kongers will leave and emigrate from Hong Kong,” said Ah Lung, speaking in a small apartment in the Sham Shui Po neighborhood as he prepared for a night of protests that quickly descended into violence.

“By then, it won’t be Hong Kong anymore, but Xiang Gang,” he said, referring to the name commonly used on the mainland for Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said that protesters’ calls for a revolution to “liberate” Hong Kong are illegal acts that challenge the authority of the central government in Beijing.

In response to questions from Reuters about the protests, a spokesman for Lam referred to her promise to address income disparities in the city once the violence subsides.

The Hong Kong Liaison Office, Beijing’s main representative arm in the city, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond to questions from Reuters.

The Hong Kong police did not respond to questions from Reuters. During the protests, police spokesmen have repeatedly defended the use of force and have pointed to escalating violence by protesters that has included throwing bricks and fire bombs.

LEADERLESS MOVEMENT

The protesters’ mantra – “Be water!” – epitomizes the movement’s tactics. A phrase borrowed from the Hong Kong movie star Bruce Lee, who used it to describe his kung fu philosophy, it is a call for flexibility and creativity, moving forward to press an advantage and pulling back when a strategic retreat is needed.

Its latest manifestation is the series of wildcat protests that have spread across the city in recent weeks. When police turn up in numbers at one protest, the activists often engage them, tying down officers before melting away and reappearing to stage a fresh protest in another area.

Pro-democracy protests that paralyzed much of downtown Hong Kong in 2014 involved blocking several key roads for more than two months. The more fluid tactics now being deployed by protesters, often masked to avoid surveillance and dressed in black, present a greater challenge for the police. Frontline officers speak of exhaustion, saying they never know where the activists will strike next.

Protesters say their movement is leaderless. In some ways, that’s a reaction to the 2014 demonstrations in which many of the leaders were arrested and given prison terms.

Unlike those protests, when leaders like Joshua Wong became globally recognized names, frontline activists like Ah Lung are deliberately staying under the radar, using pseudonyms and appearing at protests with their faces obscured by masks and sunglasses.

The leaderless nature of the protest movement is made possible, to a large extent, by social media.

Protesters take their cues from more than 100 groups on the instant messaging app Telegram, dozens of Instagram sites and online forums like LIHKG. The groups are used to post everything from news on upcoming protests to tips on dousing tear gas canisters fired by the police to the identities of suspected undercover police and the access codes to buildings in Hong Kong where protesters can hide.

It’s not an issue of having “no leader, it simply means that everyone is a leader,” said one 22-year-old Hong Kong student based in Britain who helps run “antielabhk,” an Instagram page that includes details about protests that has amassed more than 50,000 followers. The student asked not to be named.

Ma, a 28-year-old university student who would only give her surname, said at a recent protest in the volatile Mongkok district that she had come after seeing recruitment appeals in a Telegram group. “We were only notified or briefed today – like an hour ago,” said Ma, as she handed out water to protesters.

THE FRONT LINES

A feature of the protests in recent weeks has been the sight of ordinary activists like Ah Lung, the shipping clerk, rallying other protesters.

In Sham Shui Po on Sunday, Ah Lung joined other masked “frontliners” as the protest began. Some used wrenches to loosen bolts on roadside fences, which were then shaken loose, bound with nylon ties, and formed into makeshift barricades against the police.

Ah Lung, brandishing a Star Wars light saber he had bought at a toy shop, called out instructions on where to position the barricades. As they worked, other masked protesters used hand-held telescopes to track police movements.

The improvised, bottom-up nature of the protest movement is further evident in the scores of medics, some of them medical staff from local hospitals, who say they have turned up unprompted at protest sites to treat the wounded and administer saline solution to tear gas victims.

Kay, a 28-year-old medic who works in information technology and would only give her first name, said she prepared an emergency kit, including iodine, bandages, tourniquets and saline solution before every protest.

“I was hit by a tear gas canister one time and then when I retreated to a safe spot, some people helped me. I felt touched, and I wanted to help some people back.”

While the protest movement may not have clearly identifiable leaders, it does have the backing of prominent pro-democracy activists and groups who have organized some of the demonstrations. In the past, they have led smaller, more orderly demonstrations that were not aimed so pointedly at the leadership in Beijing.

Reuters reporting shows there is a high degree of coordination among a small circle of these activists, many of whom participated in the 2014 protests that were sparked by Beijing’s refusal to grant Hong Kong universal suffrage.

For instance, members of Demosisto, a party that advocates for greater democracy in Hong Kong, have been behind a number of demonstrations, some of which ended in violent clashes with riot police, according to the group’s members.

Last month, Tobias Leung, a member of the party’s standing committee, applied for police permission to stage a rally in the suburban district of Sha Tin. Leung’s link to the protest wasn’t immediately clear because he applied under the name of a local community group, according to Wong, the leader of Demosisto.

Wong and other prominent activists have been present at various demonstrations, sometimes close to the front lines. But they have struggled to impose leadership on the streets, with the protesters debating amongst themselves and consulting their phone groups on what action to take.

Along with other prominent democrats in the city, Wong has been seen at protests by Reuters being shouted down by activists who say they don’t want the movement hijacked by any single leader or group.

“I’m quite happy people are saying we should not rely on any specific political leader to lead this movement,” Wong told Reuters.

Jailed independence activist Edward Leung, who is revered by many of the protesters, is currently serving a six-year sentence for rioting stemming from a protest in 2016.

Francis Lee, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, who has written a book on Hong Kong social movements, describes the protests as an “open source” movement. Protesters often aggregate the best ideas in online groups and vote on courses of action, he said.

China has accused foreign countries of being behind the protests. Both Western and Asian diplomats in the city monitor the protests closely and some have been seen at events. Diplomats say this is part of their routine work.

FRUSTRATIONS BOIL OVER

The protests erupted in late April over a bill proposed by Lam that would have allowed the extradition of defendants from Hong Kong to mainland China. Unlike the demand for universal suffrage, which fueled the 2014 protests, the extradition bill was seen as a specific, tangible threat by many Hong Kongers, galvanizing hundreds of thousands of people.

Facing huge protests, Lam announced on June 15 that she was freezing the bill.

That wasn’t enough for many Hong Kong residents, many of whom flooded onto the streets in one of the largest protest marches ever seen in the city, largely organized by a coalition of civil society groups. The march brought together a diverse cross-section of Hong Kong society, including members of the city’s politically conservative middle class.

A major turning point in the protests was an assault on July 21 on Beijing’s Central Government Liaison Office – the most prominent symbol of China’s authority in Hong Kong.

Black-clad activists arrived at dusk at the glass-steel skyscraper that bears the red state seal of China above its entrance. As the crowd quickly swelled to thousands, some protesters hurled eggs at the building. Others used spray paint to scrawl the words “Revolution of Our Time” on the walls.

Some tried to neutralize surveillance cameras by targeting them with laser pointers. To roars of approval, protesters then lobbed black paint at the state seal of China.

“Carrie Lam has refused to listen to our concerns about Communist Party interference,” said one 27-year-old protester who would only give his name as Paul, as he attached vials of anti-tear gas fluid onto his military style backpack. “Now we have to send our message to the communists directly.”

The Liaison Office has since become the target of repeated protests.

Nick Tsang, a protester clad in a black balaclava and black clothes, was in a crowd that began congregating in a Hong Kong park on the afternoon of July 28.

Tsang checked out a Telegram group to see where other protesters were going. One group of protesters splintered off and headed to the city’s police headquarters, while another group branched out in the direction of the Causeway Bay shopping district. Later on, some backtracked toward the Liaison Office. Tsang followed them.

This time, the building was fortified with water-filled plastic barriers, and several battalions of riot police and other elite units. Liaison Office staff, meanwhile, had replaced the sullied state seal with a new one and encased it in a plexiglass box.

Following several hours of heated clashes in the streets around the Liaison Office, a rearguard of protesters, including Tsang, found themselves surrounded by police. With tear gas swirling, they made a run for the Hong Kong subway system and escaped onto a train.

“We can’t retreat or the authoritarianism will worsen,” said Tsang, referring to the Chinese government.

“This is not about me. This is for Hong Kong, my home city.”

(Multimedia package on Hong Kong protests : https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/hongkong-protests-protesters/)

(Reporting by James Pomfret, Greg Torode, Clare Jim and Anne Marie Roantree. Additional reporting by Jessie Pang, David Lague, Felix Tam, Donny Kwok, Marius Zaharia, Vimvam Tong and Noah Sin; Editing by Philip McClellan and Peter Hirschberg)

Hong Kong airport grinds to halt as China likens protests to terrorism

Anti-extradition bill protesters rally at the departure hall of Hong Kong airport in Hong Kong, China August 12, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By Greg Torode and Vimvam Tong

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s airport canceled all flights on Monday, blaming demonstrators for the disruptions, while China said the anti-government protests that have roiled the city through two summer months had begun to show “sprouts of terrorism”.

The airport authority said it was working with airlines to resume flights from 6 a.m. on Tuesday, but the developments raise the stakes after a weekend of skirmishes during which both activists and police toughened their stances.

Some Hong Kong legal experts say official descriptions of some protesters’ actions as terrorism could lead to the use of extensive anti-terror laws and powers against them.

China’s People’s Armed Police also assembled in the neighboring city of Shenzhen for exercises, the state-backed Global Times newspaper said.

People in the Asian financial hub responded by taking to the streets again, picketing a police station and returning in their hundreds to a metro station where police had hit activists with batons, to protest against the heavy-handed tactics.

The increasingly violent demonstrations have plunged the Chinese-ruled territory into its most serious crisis in decades, presenting Chinese leader Xi Jinping with one of his biggest popular challenges since he came to power in 2012.

“Hong Kong has come to a critical juncture,” said Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office spokesman Yang Guang in Beijing.

“Protesters have been frequently using extremely dangerous tools to attack the police in recent days, constituting serious crimes with sprouts of terrorism emerging.”

The protests began in opposition to a bill allowing extradition to the mainland but have widened to highlight other grievances, winning broad support.

The precise trigger for the airport’s closure was not clear, since protesters occupying the arrivals hall for four days have been peaceful.

“This is about our freedom,” said one of the thousands of protesters who remained there, a 24-year-old wearing a mask, who gave his name only as Yu. “Why should we leave?”

GROUNDED

Hong Kong is the world’s busiest air cargo port and the 8th busiest by passenger traffic, says the Airports Council International (ACI), a global association. It has been filled with anti-government protesters for four days.

The mostly young black-clad protesters have chanted slogans such as “No rioters, only tyranny!” and “Liberate Hong Kong!” while approaching travelers with flyers describing their demands and explaining the unrest.

Demonstrators say they are fighting the erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement enshrining some autonomy for Hong Kong when China took it back from Britain in 1997.

The activists at the airport have been polite and passengers mostly unperturbed. “I was expecting something, given all the news,” one arrival, Gurinda Singh, told Reuters.

“I’m just pleased my plane arrived and the protests here seem peaceful.”

Some activists moved to the departure area and caused disruptions, police told a news conference as the cancellations were announced.

Police declined to say if they would move to clear the demonstrators. There was no visible police presence in either the departure or arrivals area.

“Airport operations at Hong Kong International Airport have been seriously disrupted as a result of the public assembly at the airport today,” the city’s airport authority said in a statement, without elaborating.

About 190 flights were hit, Chinese aviation data firm VariFlight said, though planes already en route to Hong Kong were allowed to land.

RESTIVE WEEKEND

Demonstrators threw up barricades across the city at the weekend, as police fired tear gas into crowded underground train stations as well as rubber bullets and pepper pellets at close range.

In response, protesters have sought to channel a Bruce Lee maxim: “Be water,” employing a flash-mob strategy to frustrate authorities and stretch their resources.

Still, scores of protesters were arrested, sometimes after being beaten with batons and bloodied by police. One young female medic was hospitalized after being hit by a pellet round in the right eye.

Hundreds of people returned on Monday to the scene of some of the clashes to protest against the use of force.

“We are completely disappointed with Hong Kong police,” said Terry Ng, 30, a social worker protesting outside Wan Chai police station. “The weight of their shots caused a young girl to lose one eye. Do they still have a conscience?”

Authorities have called the citywide demonstrations illegal and dangerous, while highlighting their impact on the already-faltering economy and residents’ activities.

Beijing says criminals and agitators are stirring violence, but its use of the word “terrorism” on Monday was its starkest warning yet, possibly paving the way for a national-security response to the crisis.

China has used the threat of terrorism to justify tough measures in its regions of Xinjiang and Tibet, which have been criticized by rights groups and Western governments. It warned them off on Monday as well.

“Hong Kong is China’s Hong Kong and Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a statement.

China has also put pressure on big companies, such as Cathay Pacific Airways, whose shares tumbled to a 10-year low on Monday, after it was told to suspend staff engaged in illegal protests.

Police, who have arrested more than 600 people since the unrest began more than two months ago, demonstrated a water cannon.

(Reporting by Greg Torode, Vimvam Tong, Clare Jim, Felix Tam, Noah Sin, Brenda Goh, Twinnie Siu, James Pomfret, Farah Master, Felix Tam, Anne Marie Roantree and Donny Kwok; Writing by Tom Westbrook; Editing by James Pomfret and Clarence Fernandez)

Hong Kong protesters disrupt train services, cause commuter chaos

Anti-extradition bill demonstrators block a Mass Transit Railway (MTR) train in Hong Kong, China July 30, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Vimvam Tong and Felix Tam

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of Hong Kong protesters blocked train services during the morning rush hour on Tuesday, causing commuter chaos in the latest anti-government campaign to roil the former British colony.

What started three months ago as rallies against an extradition bill that would have allowed people in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for trial, has evolved into a wider backlash against the city’s government and its political masters in Beijing.

Protests have occurred almost daily, sometimes with little notice, disrupting business, piling pressure on the city’s beleaguered government and stretching its police force, which some have accused of using excessive force.

Activists blocked train doors, playing havoc with services and forcing hundreds of people to stream out of railway stations in search of alternative transport.

“We don’t know how long we are going to stay here, we don’t have a leader, as you can see this is a mass movement now,” said Sharon, a 21-year-old masked protester who declined to give her full name.

“It’s not our intention to inconvenience people, but we have to make the authorities understand why we protest. We will continue with this as long as needed.”

Others chanted, “Liberate Hong Kong,” and “Revolution of our time”.

By mid-morning, commuters were crammed into stations across the city, waiting to board trains that were badly delayed, with no service on some lines.

Rail operator MTR Corp urged people to seek other transport.

Transport Secretary Frank Chan called on protesters to stop targeting a rail network that provides transport to five million people a day, public broadcaster RTHK reported.

Hong Kong, which returned to China in 1997, is embroiled in its worst political crisis for decades after two months of increasingly violent protests that have posed one of the gravest populist challenges to Communist Party rulers in Beijing.

‘INCONVENIENT AND ANNOYING’

China on Monday reiterated its support for Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, and its police and urged Hong Kong people to oppose violence.

Lam’s popularity has dropped to a record low, according to a survey by the independent Public Opinion Research Institute released on Tuesday.

The survey, conducted between July 17 and July 19, showed Lam scored a rating of 30.1, down from 33.4 at the beginning of the month. Her approval rate stands at 21%, while her disapproval rate is 70%.

Over the last few years, many people in Hong Kong have become concerned about the whittling away of the city’s freedoms, guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” formula established when it returned to China in 1997.

China denies interfering and has warned that the protests are an “undisguised challenge” to the formula under which the city is ruled, and risked damaging its economy.

The mass transit protest follows a demonstration at the Chinese-ruled city’s international airport on Friday and violent protests at the weekend when activists clashed with police who fired rubber bullets, tear gas and sponge grenades – a crowd-control weapon.

Some scuffles broke out between commuters and protesters, who gradually began to disperse, while more police were deployed in stations, where they stopped protesters to search their bags.

Commuters grew increasingly frustrated over the disruption, and shops, including bakeries and convenience stores, had also begun to close.

“It’s so inconvenient and annoying, really. I am in a hurry to work, to make a living. Will you give away your salary to me?” said a 64-year-old man surnamed Liu.

Others were more supportive, refusing to blame the protesters.

“This non-cooperation movement is caused by Carrie Lam. She doesn’t cooperate with the people of Hong Kong or respond to their demands,” Jason Lo, 31, told Reuters as he waited for a train.

(Reporting by Sumeet Chatterjee, Vimvam Tong and Felix Tam; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Farah Master; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Robert Birsel)

Protesters clash in Hong Kong as cycle of violence intensifies

Protesters clash with riot police during a protest against police violence during previous marches, near China's Liaison Office, Hong Kong, China July 28, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By James Pomfret and Simon Gardner

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police clashed with thousands of protesters on Sunday, as they sought to defend China’s main representative office from crowds seething over what many see as an increasing cycle of violence against them.

Protests over the past two months spearheaded by anti-government activists against a proposed bill that would allow people to be extradited from the city to stand trial in courts in mainland China have grown increasingly violent.

A march on Saturday against an assault the previous weekend by suspected triad gang members ended in violent turmoil as riot police waded in to disperse crowds.

On Sunday, a peaceful gathering in a park in the city’s central business district rapidly morphed into a march, as tens of thousands of black-clad protesters set off in several directions, clogging up major thoroughfares.

Thousands of people headed east, toward the shopping district of Causeway Bay, while another large contingent headed west, toward the Chinese government’s representative office, known as the Central Government Liaison Office.

There, hundreds of riot police blocked activists from advancing toward the building, which had been heavily fortified with barricades after it was surrounded and defaced a week earlier. A clear plastic shield had been erected around a national emblem above its front doors.

As the crowds surged, hundreds of riot police with shields advanced, firing rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets and sponge grenades – a crowd-control weapon – at protesters, sending clouds of acrid, burning smoke through the streets.

Some protesters were on their knees choking as ambulances raced to take away the injured.

The mostly young activists in hard hats, gas masks and body armor dug in, dismantling street signs and fences which they used to form makeshift barricades to slow police advances.

Many hit metallic surfaces with sticks to create an ominous drumbeat that echoed down the streets.

Pro-democracy protesters march to protest against police violence during previous marches, in central Hong Kong, China July 28, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Pro-democracy protesters march to protest against police violence during previous marches, in central Hong Kong, China July 28, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

“AGE OF REVOLUTION”

China’s Liaison Office, a potent symbol of Beijing’s rule over the city since Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997, has become a target for growing ranks of increasingly emboldened youngsters, angry at China’s tightening grip on the city’s freedoms.

Under a “one country, two systems” formula instituted as part of China’s sovereignty, the city was promised wide-ranging freedoms denied citizens in mainland China.

“We call this Hong Kong’s age of revolution,” said a masked protester who called himself K Lee. “This movement has been sparked by China’s refusal to respect Hong Kong’s freedoms, and the failure of authorities to listen to the people’s voice.”

After multiple weekends of unrest, the protests have continued to draw large and apparently growing ranks of protesters in increasingly violent stand-offs.

Protesters responded to police with bricks, eggs and slingshots, as well as home-made gas canisters and paintballs.

Last Sunday, protesters took police by surprise with a swoop on the Liaison Office, scrawling graffiti and throwing paint bombs at walls, the national emblem and a plaque. Chinese officials described the vandalism as an attack on China’s sovereignty that would not be tolerated.

“I have no words for Xi Jinping, he is very arrogant in his belief in communism,” said a university student who called herself Miss Ho, referring to the Chinese president. “He is taking away our freedom, and that is something we cannot bear.”

China denies interfering in Hong Kong and has warned that the violent protests over the proposed legislation allowing extraditions to mainland China were an “undisguised challenge to the formula under which it is ruled.

‘STOP VIOLENCE’

Many of the marchers on Sunday chanted slogans against the police. Some held banners reading: “We rise as one, we fight as one” and “Stop violence”.

The protests have brought the most serious political crisis to Hong Kong since it returned to China, and have posed an increasingly delicate national security headache for China’s Xi at a time of trade tensions with the United States and a slowing Chinese economy.

What began as a movement to oppose the extradition law has taken on broader demands. They include the resignation of Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader Carrie Lam, calls for full democracy and an independent inquiry into what some say has been excessive police force against protesters.

Lam has so far refused to accede to any of the demands.

The protesters appeared to be getting more organized and willing to use violence to achieve their aims. On Sunday, activists said they hoped to stretch the police by splitting their marches.

“The police usually surround us and we have nowhere to go. So we adjust our strategy this time. This is much more fluid and flexible,” protester Edward Ng said.

As riot police advanced at the end of the night from several fronts, the protesters, hemmed in and unable to see a way out, began streaming down into the Sheung Wan underground metro station.

The black-clad protesters clambered onto and filled a passenger train, chanting “Free Hong Kong. Age of Revolution”, in an orderly retreat. Many changed out of their black shirts, then changed trains, and vanished into the night.

(Additional reporting by Felix Tam and Sijia Jiang; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Robert Birsel, Janet Lawrence and Dale Hudson)

From ‘Asia’s finest’ to ‘black dogs’: Hong Kong police under pressure

FILE PHOTO: Riot police ask anti-extradition bill protesters to leave in front of public housing after a march at Sha Tin District of East New Territories, Hong Kong, China July 14, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

By Greg Torode and Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s vaunted police force is facing a crisis of confidence and leadership amid the city’s worsening political tensions, according to serving and retired officers, politicians and security analysts.

The force is struggling to cope amid haphazard decision-making, worsening morale and anger among rank-and-file officers that they are taking the public heat for government unpopularity, they warned.

“The lower ranks are feeling lost and confused,” said one retired officer who remains in close touch with former colleagues. “There is clearly a lack of leadership at key moments and a sense that there is not enough support from the government and that is having an impact on commanders.”

A police statement to Reuters did not respond directly to questions about morale and concerns among officers, but said: “violent protests seriously undermine the rule of law”.

“The police, with the mission of upholding the law of Hong Kong, would definitely stand at the forefront to maintain public safety and order,” the statement said.

As the street-level face of the government during protests, police say they are easy targets for public rage, but protesters say they have used excessive force at times and their surveillance tactics are heavy-handed.

Britain handed the global financial hub back to Chinese rule in 1997 with guarantees that its wide freedoms and autonomy, including the right to protest, would be maintained.

Huge street protests last month against a bill to allow people to be sent for trial in mainland China have evolved into almost daily demonstrations.

Though the city’s government insists the bill is now effectively dead, activists continue to demand that it is formally scrapped, and are also calling for independent inquiries into police actions, democratic reforms and the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

RUNNING SKIRMISHES

Two initially peaceful protests at the weekend degenerated into running skirmishes between baton-wielding riot police and activists, one in a suburban shopping mall crowded with Sunday shoppers.

The fights followed larger outbreaks of violence between police and protesters in central Hong Kong last month, with police forcing back activists with tear gas, rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds.

Thousands surrounded the police’s headquarters a few days later, trapping senior force brass and junior officers inside the building for several hours.

Another senior serving officer said the fact that there was no apparent end in sight to Hong Kong’s political tensions was further fuelling uncertainty across the 30,000-strong force.

“We are in uncharted waters….no one knows where this is going,” he said.

A police union covering some 20,000 junior officers wrote to force chiefs this week to seek fresh guarantees their safety and mental health would be protected. Officers should not be deployed to dangerous situations unless management had “confidence in the conditions, including tactics and equipment”, the letter said.

Beyond a small core of activists who are increasingly prepared to fight police with umbrellas, hard hats and street furniture, some officers are expressing shock at the verbal abuse they are facing during even small, peaceful gatherings.

In recent days, Reuters witnesses have seen groups of police routinely sworn at and cursed by commuters, with some calling them “black dogs”. Others have chased away plainclothes officers taking photographs.

A Wikipedia page on the force was apparently hacked this week, with the phrase “black dogs” inserted.

It marks a swift change, with Hong Kong police long priding themselves on being “Asia’s finest” given the city’s international reputation for public safety and order, and strong working relationships with foreign police agencies.

After battling leftist rioting in the 1960s and institutionalized corruption in the 1970s, force chiefs worked hard to improve training and boost its reputation for professionalism.

Police stand guard at Hong Kong's tourism district Tsim Sha Tsui during anti-extradition bill protest, China July 7, 2019. Picture taken July 7, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Police stand guard at Hong Kong’s tourism district Tsim Sha Tsui during anti-extradition bill protest, China July 7, 2019. Picture taken July 7, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

WORSENING TENSIONS

Veteran Democratic Party lawmaker James To said he was deeply concerned at the worsening tensions between the police and the public.

To said he was aware that many police felt angry they were “shouldering the blame” for the incompetence of the government. He was worried too that public anger towards law enforcers had reached a level never before seen in the city.

“This a very worrying turn of events and if the government cannot solve things politically, then they should give clear guidance to the police,” said To.

Steve Vickers, a former commander of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau who now runs a risk consultancy, said it was critical that force morale be sustained and improved “so that they can have confidence that they will not be ‘thrown under a bus’ by Carrie Lam’s administration should they take necessary firmer action.”

He said the government should allow the police to use tear-gas more freely so they can disperse violent groups more safely than using baton charges. “Batons and hand-to-hand fighting always results in serious injury,” he said.

Lam’s office did not immediately respond to Reuters’ questions.

If tensions continued to worsen and Hong Kong police struggled to maintain order, some foreign security analysts believed Beijing could be tempted to deploy the mainland’s paramilitary People’s Armed Police to Hong Kong.

While neither governments had any appetite to deploy locally-based Chinese People’s Liberation Army troops, the PAP could be an interim measure, they said.

The PAP is a dedicated anti-riot force that is now under the sole command of China’s Central Military Commission and has units based across the border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen, according to Chinese media reports.

The Chinese Defence Ministry did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

To, the lawmaker, said he believed deploying the PAP would still be a too-dramatic move and would not be acceptable to either the Hong Kong police or the public.

(Reporting By Greg Torode and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Climate change protesters descend on France’s SocGen, energy companies

Environmental activists block the entrance of the Ministry of Ecology, Energy and Sustainable Development during a "civil disobedience action" to urge world leaders to act against climate change, in La Defense near Paris, France, April 19, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

By Bate Felix

PARIS (Reuters) – Climate activists blocked thousands of employees from entering the headquarters of French bank Societe Generale, state-run utility EDF and oil giant Total on Friday, environmental group Greenpeace said.

Greenpeace said it was protesting against company links to the oil and gas industry, which it calls a driving force in global warming. Activists also obstructed the entrance to the environment ministry near La Defense business district.

Protesters plastered giant posters of President Emmanuel Macron carrying the slogan “Macron, President of Polluters” and a banner reading “Scene of Climate Crime” on the glass facade of Societe Generale, Reuters TV images showed.

Police pepper-sprayed one group blocking the bank’s main entrance in a sit-down protest.

Some demonstrators taped themselves together while others cuffed themselves with plastic ties to metal poles to make it harder for police to dislodge them.

Employees in business suits milled around outside their offices. “I just want to get inside and on with my work,” one frustrated bank employee said.

Greenpeace and action group Les Amis de la Terre (Friends of the Earth) have previously criticized Societe Generale for its role in financing oil and gas projects, in particular the Rio Grande LNG gas project in the United States.

A Societe Generale spokesman declined to comment.

ACTION NOT EASY

A spokesman for EDF, which relies heavily on nuclear and hydropower plants to generate electricity, said 96 percent of its power was carbon dioxide-free. He said EDF was committed to curbing its total carbon footprint by 40 percent by 2030.

A Total spokeswoman said two senior company executives had held talks with representatives of Greenpeace and Les Amis de la Terre.

At an oil industry summit in Paris on Friday, Total Chief Executive Patrick Pouyanne acknowledged the climate change protests.

The Societe Generale logo is covered by molasses representing oil as Environmental activists block the entrance to the headquarters of the French bank Societe Generale during a "civil disobedience action" to urge world leaders to act against climate change, in La Defense near Paris, France, April 19, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

The Societe Generale logo is covered by molasses representing oil as Environmental activists block the entrance to the headquarters of the French bank Societe Generale during a “civil disobedience action” to urge world leaders to act against climate change, in La Defense near Paris, France, April 19, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

“Many people are demonstrating in Paris and are asking for more action. We all know it is not so easy because the population’s primary request is for access to more energy, affordable energy and it has to be clean,” he said.

He added that Total was trying to address climate change by improving the efficiency of its operations, growing its natural gas business and developing an electricity business based on low-carbon gas and renewables.

He also said Total had increased its output to 2.95 million barrels of oil equivalent per day this year, passing its 2018 record, aided by increased production in Australia, Angola, Nigeria and Russia.

Friday’s protest echoed a series by the Extinction Rebellion group of climate-change campaigners in London this week that have caused transport snarl-ups in the British capital.

Teenage demonstrators staged an emotional protest, weeping and singing, at political inaction on climate change near London’s Heathrow Airport on Friday.

(Reporting by Antony Paone, Bate Felix, Inti Landauro and Geert De Clercq; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)