Hong Kong protest tide turns into sea of flames

By James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Chinese-ruled Hong Kong introduced a bill into the legislature in February that would have allowed the extradition of defendants to mainland China for the first time to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.

The move touched a raw nerve, with many in the liberal, free-wheeling financial hub fearing an erosion of Hong Kong’s judicial independence and individual rights, amid fears individuals wouldn’t be guaranteed a fair trial.

The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with promises that its autonomy and freedoms were guaranteed. But in recent years, many have been angered by a perceived tightening grip by China. The extradition law was seen as a final straw.

The first protests flared in March and April and snowballed. On June 9, an estimated one million people took to the streets. The city’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, suspended the extradition bill on June 14 but this didn’t pacify the protesters who wanted it to be scrapped entirely.

A protester holding up an anti-extradition bill banner fell from the roof of a luxury mall and died. Protesters consider this to be the first death of the movement during a demonstration.

On July 1, anti-government protesters held a mass march, after which they stormed the legislature. Hardline activists rampaged through the building, smashing furniture and spray-painting walls and the coat of arms.

The unprecedented attack marked a turning point from a peaceful, 79-day pro-democracy street sit-in in 2014 that had achieved nothing. Young protesters would use violence more often in a bid to exert more pressure on the city government, trashing government buildings, shopping malls and metro stations.

As the arrests of protesters began to mount, some began using petrol bombs to slow police advances on the crowds and to allow people time to escape.

The violence in one of the safest major cities in the world was becoming more regular. Police countered petrol bombs and rocks with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and eventually the occasional live round. A water cannon was deployed by police for the first time in the industrial New Territories town of Tsuen Wan on Aug. 25.

Weekend after weekend, streets of the city, in different places but often in the up-market Central business area and the Causeway Bay shopping district, would become a sea of flames. Tear gas billowed between the high-rises as sirens wailed on some of the most densely populated streets on Earth.

There were several injuries but no deaths from direct police fire.

Protesters were now railing against perceived police brutality that helped fuel public anger and protest turnouts.

After nearly two months of upheaval, with the protests now morphing into a fully-fledged anti-government movement with five key demands, including full democracy, the protesters turned their attention to the airport, one of Asia’s most spectacular aviation hubs, built by the British in the dying days of colonial rule and reached by a series of gleaming bridges.

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE

Thousands of protesters staged a sit-in inside the arrivals hall that led to the airport shutting down for several days. The move garnered international headlines with the travel plans of thousands of foreign nationals thrown into disarray.

The protests kept up their momentum, week after week, until Hong Kong’s leader eventually formally withdrew the detested extradition bill on Sept. 4.

But many protesters said it was too little, too late.

They continued to press their other demands, including an amnesty for the thousands already arrested and an independent investigation into alleged police brutality.

Tension was also building between protesters and pro-Beijing residents, including those in one of the “reddest” pro-China districts of North Point on Hong Kong island. Chinese banks and businesses, or those perceived as being pro-Beijing, came under attack.

In mid-November, students turned several university campuses into fortresses, barricading themselves inside and clashing with riot police on the periphery. On Nov. 12, riot police at Chinese University fired more than 1,000 rounds of tear gas at protesters.

A few days later, hundreds of front-line protesters became trapped inside Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University, at the mouth of the now-closed Cross-Harbour Tunnel on the Kowloon side of the water. They manufactured an arsenal of petrol bombs and practised firing bows and arrows in the half-empty swimming pool as police blocked the exits.

The protesters battled riot police for several intense days amid fears of a bloody clampdown. In the end, hundreds of arrests were made, while scores of protesters resorted to desperate means to escape, including rappelling off bridges on ropes and hopping on to the backs of motorbikes and even trying to swim out through the sewers.

After the siege of PolyU, Hong Kong held a city-wide election on Nov. 24 that pro-democracy candidates won in a landslide with a record-high turnout.

Democrats seized nearly 90 percent of the nearly 450 seats on offer. A mass year-end march on Hong Kong island also drew an estimated 800,000 people showing continued public support.

The crisis has not only shaken Hong Kong, but posed one of the gravest populist challenges to Chinese President Xi Jinping, with some protesters calling for outright independence from China.

China denies interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs and blames the unrest on the West, specifically the United States and Britain. It has backed Hong Kong leader Lam in her efforts to quell the violence but says it will not tolerate any threat to Chinese sovereignty.

China’s People’s Liberation Army garrison in the territory has stayed in barracks since the handover in 1997. It has beefed up its numbers in the city amid the unrest and troops also helped clear protester barricades outside a barracks in November.

China has warned that any attempt at independence will be crushed.

Hong Kong’s fiery protests in pictures: https://reut.rs/2PNZ4zZ

(Reporting by James Pomfret; editing by Nick Macfie)

Special Report: How murder, kidnappings and miscalculation set off Hong Kong’s revolt

By David Lague, James Pomfret and Greg Torode

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam says the plan that ignited the revolt in her city was born of a straightforward quest for justice.

While on a trip to Taiwan, a Hong Kong man strangled his Hong Kong girlfriend, then returned home and confessed. The city lacked an extradition pact with Taiwan, and Lam argued the only way to send him back for trial was new laws that also would enable sending criminal suspects to mainland China. She dismissed fears about the proposal – which would mean Hong Kong residents could face trial in China’s Communist Party-controlled courts – and pushed ahead.

As protests raged this summer, even in private Lam kept to her story that she, not Beijing, was the prime mover, driven by “compassion” for the young victim’s devastated parents. “This is not something instructed, coerced by the central government,” she told a room of Hong Kong businesspeople at a talk in August.

A Reuters examination has found a far more complicated story. Officials in Beijing first began pushing for an extradition law two decades ago. This pressure to extend the arm of Chinese law into Hong Kong’s independent British-style legal system intensified in 2017, a year before the slaying and two years before Lam’s administration announced its extradition bill. The impetus came from the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Communist Party’s powerful internal anti-corruption body, which has been spearheading Chinese President Xi Jinping’s mass anti-graft campaign.

Xi’s crackdown spilled over dramatically into the streets of Hong Kong in the early hours of January 27, 2017. Among the targets of CCDI investigators at the time, two mainland Chinese officials with knowledge of the probe told Reuters, was a Chinese billionaire living in the city named Xiao Jianhua. A businessman with close ties to China’s political elite, Xiao was abducted that morning from his serviced apartment at the luxury Four Seasons Hotel. Unidentified captors whisked him out the entrance in a wheelchair with his head covered, a witness told Reuters.

The sensational kidnapping, widely reported at the time, was assumed by most people in this city of 7.5 million to have been the work of Chinese agents; Beijing has never commented publicly on the matter. Frustrated at the lack of legal means to get their hands on Xiao, the two Chinese officials told Reuters, the CCDI that same year began pressing mainland officials in charge of Hong Kong affairs about the urgent need for an extradition arrangement. The CCDI wanted a less politically damaging method than kidnapping for snaring fugitive mainlanders in Hong Kong, the officials said.

The two sides failed to strike a deal, but the killing in Taiwan would provide a new opening.

Pro-Beijing lawmakers in Hong Kong championed the calls for justice of the victim’s grieving parents, arranged an emotional news conference for them and pushed Lam’s administration to find a way to extradite the killer. One of China’s top officials for Hong Kong affairs pressed a senior Lam adviser in a private meeting in Beijing on the need to pass the proposal. Early in the crisis, when Lam privately proposed withdrawing the bill to quell the protests, senior Chinese officials rejected the move, only to relent months later as public fury mounted.

The extradition law would have been a boost to Chinese interests, a senior mainland official told Reuters, by eliminating the need to resort to kidnappings or other controversial extrajudicial acts in Hong Kong. The move would have helped us “avoid such problems,” he said.

This account of how the extradition bill was launched, promoted and ultimately unraveled is based on more than 50 interviews with mainland officials, current and former Hong Kong government officials, members of Lam’s cabinet, associates and friends of the Hong Kong leader from her days as a student activist, and current and former lawmakers and police officers. Reuters also drew on the public record of debates and correspondence regarding the bill in the city’s legislature, the Legislative Council.

One finding that emerges is how out of touch the mainland leadership and the people it has hand-picked to run Hong Kong were with public sentiment. When China reclaimed Hong Kong from British rule in 1997, it guaranteed under a “one-country, two-systems” formula that the city would keep its treasured freedoms for 50 years. In effect, the promise postponed a decision on how an authoritarian one-party state would absorb a liberty-loving capitalist city. After two decades of determined grassroots political work by Beijing to win hearts and minds, some of the bill’s leading supporters admit they were stunned by the hostility of so many Hong Kong citizens to Chinese rule.

“I was shocked to discover that in fact a very large proportion of us, people in Hong Kong, do not really feel at all comfortable with one-country, two-systems,” said Ronny Tong, a member of Lam’s top advisory body, the Executive Council, in an interview with Reuters. “How do you deal with this lack of confidence if not outright hatred about Beijing? How do you deal with it?”

In a written statement to Reuters, Lam’s office said the bill “was initiated, introduced and taken forward” by her administration. The central government in Beijing “understood” why the bill had to be introduced, the statement said, and “respected the view of the Chief Executive” and “supported her all the way.”

Chinese government authorities did not respond to questions for this article.

THE ‘MYSTERY’ OF CARRIE LAM

The city’s revolt has dealt a major setback to Xi Jinping, coming as he contends with a damaging trade war with the United States. And in a blow to China’s dreams of reunifying Taiwan with the mainland, the crisis appears to have boosted the popularity of Taiwan’s independence leaning President, Tsai Ing-wen, who faces the polls in January.

For Carrie Lam, 62 years old, the miscalculation has been crushing.

Her failure to grasp the public’s suspicion of the mainland’s legal system has shattered a reputation for competence built up over a 39-year career in public service. In the past she was sometimes referred to by admirers as Hong Kong’s Iron Lady, for a resolute manner reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s. Now, some say a combination of her willfulness and her decades at the top levels of Hong Kong’s insular public service blinded her to the political danger of the extradition bill.

“The one mystery, the one puzzle is, how is it possible that Carrie Lam didn’t see the implications of such a proposal?” said Margaret Ng, a barrister who was a longtime lawmaker in the pro-democracy camp.

Born into a working class family, Lam grew up in a small apartment in the suburb of Wan Chai on Hong Kong island. Like many of the city’s government elite, she is a Catholic, educated in the city’s Catholic schools, and she remains devout. At St. Francis’ Canossian School and then St. Francis’ Canossian College, she was a star student.

In a 2013 radio interview, she revealed a glimpse of a fierce competitive streak. Lam told her interviewer of an enduring memory of her school days: The single occasion she failed to finish at the top of her class in a big exam. She said she cried.

When she began studying at the University of Hong Kong, Lam intended to be a social worker. Lee Wing-tat, a former lawmaker from the pro-democracy camp, was a fellow student. He recalls Lam was an activist in those days, taking part in protests. A citation when she was awarded an honorary degree in 2013 described how Lam had campaigned for better treatment for poor Chinese fishing families from the British colonial government.

She was intensely interested in welfare for the underprivileged, Lee said. And she was already a talented organizer. “You give her a job and she will deliver results,” Lee said.

In 1979, as post-Maoist China was opening up, students from Hong Kong were invited to send a delegation to Beijing to visit elite universities, Lee said. The Democracy Wall movement was in full swing there, with big posters calling for political and social reform appearing on a long brick wall. The Hong Kong students wanted to meet prominent liberals and soak up the atmosphere, Lee said. Lam was involved in negotiating the visit with the tough Communist bureaucrats at Xinhua News Agency, then Beijing’s unofficial mission in the British colony.

“They made it very difficult for her,” Lee recalls. “They didn’t want us to meet them.” The visit went ahead, and a highlight was a banquet Lam attended where a leading liberal journalist was a guest.

“At that time, Carrie was not so conservative,” Lee said. “She was a democrat. Just like me. After government, things changed.”

Lam abandoned plans to become a social worker and joined the colonial Hong Kong government in 1980 as an administrative officer, the elite cadre of officials who are given broad exposure to different government roles as preparation for promotion to more senior posts.

In the Hong Kong civil service, well paid administrative officers have traditionally enjoyed considerable power and prestige in a political system without the scrutiny public servants receive in a full democracy. Lam rose fast and embraced challenging roles. Her critics say she also became arrogant and dismissive of advice from peers and subordinates.

“She has never been known to be a team player,” says retired civil servant Anson Chan, who served as Hong Kong’s deputy leader before and after the handover. “That has a lot to do with her character and was also instrumental in her spectacular downfall.”

Lam’s office declined to respond to “speculations or third parties’ comments” about her.

Others paint a different picture. Veteran social activist Ho Hei-wah, director of the Society for Community Organization, said he began working closely with Lam in the 1980s, when she led successful efforts to reunite Hong Kong families with mainland relatives. “She is a caring person,” he said. “From the beginning until today.”

Ho said he helped persuade Lam to become deputy to the city’s former leader, Leung Chun-ying, in 2012. She had planned to retire to spend more time with her mathematician husband and two sons, Ho said, but agreed to take the post because she felt she could continue to serve the city.

Hong Kong had been under mainland rule for 15 years. Xi Jinping was about to assume power. And Beijing was about to begin flexing its muscle more forcefully.

In the final months of British rule, Hong Kong had passed laws barring the extradition of suspects to the mainland as an added protection to the freedoms promised under the one-country, two-systems formula. Beijing began making demands to reverse these provisions almost immediately after the handover, according to the Hong Kong government officials involved in talks about the issue. They say their mainland counterparts regarded it as an affront that the newly recovered territory would allow extradition to some foreign countries – even to America and Britain – but not to the motherland.

The discussions went nowhere, and on Leung and Lam’s watch, China began taking matters into its own hands.

A BILLIONAIRE VANISHES

One of the first major extralegal arrests to gain public attention was the disappearance in 2015 of five booksellers of local publisher Mighty Current.

The publisher specialized in muckraking books on the private lives and business dealings of China’s top leadership, including Xi himself. It later emerged that two of the men had been kidnapped – one in Hong Kong, one from Thailand – and taken to the mainland. A third later detailed how he was grabbed by Chinese agents while visiting southern China and held captive for eight months. He fled to Taiwan this April as Lam’s government sought to ram through the extradition bill.

Hong Kong leaders knew about these extralegal detentions but were unwilling to publicly call out mainland authorities over them. Lam herself was closely informed about one case.

In 2013, a Hong Kong resident, Pan Weixi, and his wife were grabbed off the street in the city and smuggled to the mainland by speedboat. The family wrote to Lam describing the abduction in detail and appealing for her help in obtaining the businessman’s release, according to people with knowledge of the case. Hong Kong police confirmed to Reuters that they sent officers to Guangdong who helped secure the wife’s freedom and escorted her home. The family later learned that Pan was sentenced to 16 years in jail in Guangdong Province. A Hong Kong police investigation into the case remains open.

After the bookseller abductions sparked an outcry, Hong Kong officials revealed in May 2016 they were in discussions with Beijing over formal extradition procedures. The talks failed, according to lawyers involved, because Beijing was unwilling to accept human-rights and legal safeguards.

Then, in early 2017, came the brazen abduction of Xiao, the billionaire who was a target of the powerful anti-graft agency CCDI. A Hong Kong government official said Xiao had crossed the border with the mainland. The city was scandalized.

These controversies didn’t impede Lam’s rise. As Leung’s deputy, she was closely involved in the government’s handling of the Umbrella Movement, a 79-day campaign of civil disobedience in 2014 in which protesters demanding full democracy occupied major thoroughfares. The movement got its name from demonstrators’ use of umbrellas to ward off police. Lam made conciliatory gestures, meeting protesters for talks, but that failed to produce a breakthrough. Police eventually cleared the protesters, and some key leaders were later prosecuted.

In March 2017, Lam was handpicked as China’s candidate to succeed Leung and easily won election by a committee of about 1,200 mostly pro-Beijing figures. She won plaudits in China for pushing through some unpopular policies. Within weeks of taking office in July 2017, her administration announced a controversial plan to let mainland officials stationed inside a Hong Kong train terminus enforce Chinese laws on travelers passing through.

Critics said this and other moves further eroded the city’s autonomy. Lam’s office rejected the criticism, saying the terminus arrangement made for more convenient travel.

Xi later praised Lam for her courage in taking on “difficult challenges,” after the two met in Beijing in December 2018, state media reported.

Two months later came the killing in Taiwan. The two young Hong Kongers – Poon Hiu-wing and her boyfriend, Chan Tong-kai – quarreled while on a trip to Taipei. Furious, Chan bashed Poon’s head against a wall and strangled her, packed her body in a suitcase and later left it at a park in the Taiwanese capital, according to a Hong Kong court judgment. Chan was arrested in March after returning to Hong Kong and confessed. He was convicted and jailed for crimes committed after his return, including using Poon’s ATM card to withdraw money. But because the slaying took place in Taipei, he would need to be sent to Taiwan to be tried for the killing.

Chan’s lawyer didn’t respond to questions for this article.

Lam later told a news conference that since the killing, her government had been spending “quite a bit of time” devising extradition proposals. In the meantime, Beijing’s political allies in the city started agitating for change.

The initial moves were low-key and attracted little attention. On May 4 last year, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, Priscilla Leung, called on the city’s Legislative Council to consider discussing judicial cooperation with Taiwan and “other places,” according to the minutes of a panel session in the council. Leung, a law professor, chairs a legislative panel on judicial affairs. She had no comment.

Within days, Leung’s proposal got a push from two lawmakers with strong links to Beijing. Starry Lee and Holden Chow went further in a letter to Leung, calling on the government to begin moves to conclude an extradition agreement with Taiwan “as soon as possible,” council records show. Lee heads the city’s biggest political party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, which hews closely to Beijing’s official line. Chow is a vice chairman and the party’s highest-profile young leader.

‘THIS WILL DESTROY HONG KONG’

The next month, one of Lam’s top lieutenants dropped a clue that changing the law on extradition was under consideration.

In answer to a written question from Starry Lee about the efforts to return the killer to Taipei, Secretary for Security John Lee said Hong Kong was studying how to handle the case. And he reminded her that under the law, the city was barred from sending suspects to any region of the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong shares Beijing’s view that Taiwan is part of the PRC. Taiwan vehemently disagrees.

Lee, 62, was a 33-year veteran of the Hong Kong police. He joined the government’s Security Bureau, which oversees the police and other law enforcement units, as deputy head in 2012 and was promoted to lead the bureau when Lam took office. Cops who served with him describe Lee as a shrewd and incorruptible crime fighter who was trusted with sensitive investigations before and after the handover. As security chief, Lee is responsible for liaison with the mainland’s powerful law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

Poon’s family was begging for justice. Their pleas reached Lam. The chief executive said she was moved and promised to help. Lam later gave a tearful television interview to local broadcaster TVB in which she said Poon’s heartbroken father had been persistent, writing five letters to the government seeking justice for his daughter.

“That’s why I told John Lee that you can’t just write a letter back to them and only say, ‘Sorry, Mr. Poon, there isn’t a legal basis for this, sorry’,” Lam said. “I said you must find a way, and not let any possibility go.”

Poon’s father declined to comment.

Starry Lee and Holden Chow continued rallying support for the Poon family and for changing the extradition law. In mid-February, they appeared at a press conference with the mother.

“Even though it’s been a year since my daughter was murdered, my husband and I can’t accept this reality,” Poon’s mother, Kui Yin-fun, said, sobbing. “I always think of this cold-blooded and cruel scene. How the murderer dragged a suitcase, and moved the corpse, and then left it in the open, so that wild dogs could eat it.”

The only way to help her daughter now, Kui told the media crowd, was justice: extradite the killer. Then Holden Chow and Starry Lee took questions. Asked whether amending the law was the sole way to deal with the case, Starry Lee said: “In principle, without this amendment of the legislation, this cannot be done.”

Asked about his championing of the bill, Chow told Reuters the plan was introduced “to deal with the Taiwan murder case and to provide the victim’s family justice.” Unfortunately, he added, the Lam administration was unable to explain the human-rights protections contained in the bill and persuade the public to embrace it. Starry Lee didn’t respond to a request for comment.

There was broad support for the Poon family in Hong Kong. But that didn’t translate into support for extradition to the mainland.

That same week, a Legislative Council agenda included an item on judicial cooperation with Taiwan and “other places.” The next day, the government showed its hand, revealing in an official briefing note that to resolve the Poon case, it was proposing amendments that would remove the ban on extraditions to other parts of China. The ban, it said, had created “loopholes,” allowing the city to become a haven for criminals.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok was outraged. The next day, he confronted security chief John Lee in a meeting room at the Legislative Council.

“I told him don’t do this,” Kwok told Reuters. “I told him it is a crazy idea. I lost my cool with him. I said this will destroy Hong Kong. Don’t do it!”

Lee ploughed ahead, telling reporters in March that the restrictions on extradition to other parts of China were a “chain that has been put on my feet.”

Chinese leaders publicly began throwing their weight behind the effort. In March, Chen Zhimin, a former vice minister of public security, linked the bill to Xi’s crackdown. He told Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK a pact was needed because there were more than 300 fugitives on China’s wanted list hiding in the city. Chen also revealed that before he left his post in 2017, mainland officials had been discussing an extradition pact with their Hong Kong counterparts – including John Lee.

In a statement to Reuters, Lee said it was “totally unfounded and erroneous” to suggest that the mainland and pro-Beijing parties were the driving force behind the bill. The alleged abductions of billionaire Xiao and others were irrelevant, he said: The trigger was the Poon killing, which exposed gaps in the law. The central government, he added, respected Lam’s views and “supported her all the way.”

By May, higher officials – including a member of the Party’s top decision-making body, the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee – were publicly backing Lam’s bill. Chinese leaders were also mobilizing support behind the scenes.

One was Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, the body that coordinates Beijing’s policy for the city. In May, Ronny Tong, the influential Lam adviser and top barrister, led a delegation of his political allies to the Chinese capital. In a 90-minute meeting, Zhang explained the importance of the extradition bill to China and Hong Kong, according to two delegation members. Zhang took a “hardline” position, they said, telling the visitors it was urgent that Hong Kong pass the measures.

Chinese authorities didn’t respond to questions about the roles of Zhang, Chen and other top leaders.

Outside of Lam’s circle, alarm was spreading through Hong Kong. Even the normally pro-Beijing business community was unnerved by the bill. People began coming out to protest by the hundreds, then by the thousands, then tens of thousands and more. On June 9, the government was shaken when an estimated one million people took to the streets in a peaceful protest. Demonstrations later turned violent.

On June 11, lawmakers were preparing for a second reading of the bill, scheduled for the next day. Pro-Beijing lawmakers had the numbers if the bill came to a vote. That day, protesters began surrounding the Legislative Council building in an effort to block the session.

With the demonstration snowballing, the Hong Kong liaison office, China’s official representative body in the city, had unwelcome news to report that night. According to two Chinese officials with knowledge of the matter, the office informed the CCDI in Beijing that the encircling protesters made it impossible to hold the debate the following morning. The CCDI suggested that lawmakers be assembled at another venue to vote, the officials said.

The protest had effectively shut down the legislature, however, preventing the second reading. Soon after, Lam crossed into the mainland and paid a call at Bauhinia Villa, a resort in the suburbs of Shenzhen where the Chinese leadership had set up a secret command center to manage the crisis.

There, Lam met with one of China’s highest leaders – Vice Premier Han Zheng, the Politburo Standing Committee member who had earlier signaled support for the bill. As Reuters reported last month, she proposed suspending the legislation. After consulting with other leaders in Beijing, Han agreed.

On June 15, Lam announced she was freezing the bill. The protesters, unmollified, insisted on a total scrapping. On July 1, a crowd smashed its way into the Legislative Council and ransacked the building.

The pressure began telling on the city leader once lauded by Xi for her steeliness. In August, at times choking up, Lam told a private meeting of businesspeople that she would quit if allowed to do so.

“Hong Kong has been turned upside down, and my life has been turned upside down,” she said, according to an audio tape obtained by Reuters. The bill was “very much prompted by our compassion” for the Poon family, “and this has proven to be very unwise.” It turned out, she said, that there was “this huge degree of fear and anxiety amongst people of Hong Kong vis-a-vis the mainland of China, which we were not sensitive enough to feel and grasp.”

In late August, Reuters revealed that officials in Beijing had rejected a proposal from Lam to scrap the bill altogether earlier in the summer and defuse the crisis.

On September 3, Lam declared the bill would be formally withdrawn. But the protests continued as the movement morphed into a broad pursuit of democratic rights.

Chan Tong-kai was released after serving 19 months in prison in Hong Kong. On October 18, five days before walking free, he revealed there was no need for an extradition deal in his case. In a letter to Lam, Chan said he was volunteering to return to Taipei to face justice. He remains free in Hong Kong while Lam and Taiwan wrangle over the details.

(Reporting by David Lague, James Pomfret and Greg Torode. Additional reporting by Anne Marie Roantree and Clare Jim in Hong Kong. Editing by Peter Hirschberg.)

Hong Kong mall protests flare with leader Lam in Beijing

Hong Kong mall protests flare with leader Lam in Beijing
By Kate O’Donnell-Lamb and Sarah Wu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Small groups of protesters gathered in shopping malls across Hong Kong on Sunday amid brief scuffles with riot police as attention turned to an upcoming meeting between Hong Kong’s leader and China’s president.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam is scheduled to meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing on Monday and some observers say the visit could yield fresh directives including a possible cabinet reshuffle.

Lam, however, appeared to play that down before she left, saying the first task was to curb violence and restore order.

On Sunday in the peak shopping season ahead of Christmas, groups of masked protesters, clad in black, marched through several malls chanting slogans including “Fight for freedom” and “Return justice to us”.

Riot police used pepper spray on crowds in one Kowloon mall, local media reported.

In Shatin, Reuters witnessed police firing a tear gas canister outside the New Town Plaza mall, and several people were taken away after entrances and walkways were blocked, glass panels smashed, and graffiti sprayed.

Police said in a statement that some shops had been damaged and that a smoke bomb had been set off. Many shops closed early.

In the evening, several hundred protesters held a vigil for a protester who fell to his death outside a luxury mall exactly six months ago after holding up a banner. Some laid white flowers, as others softly hummed ‘Sing Hallelujah’ to commemorate Leung Ling-kit, known as “raincoat man” for what he wore at the time.

“He is the first person to die because of this revolution,” said Tina, 18. “I came tonight because I want to always remember that we can’t give up and we have to keep fighting for freedom.”

Several hundred people, many social workers, gathered earlier to reiterate demands that include full democracy and an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality. Some called for more mass strikes, while others sat at tables to write Christmas cards to those who have been jailed.

Separately, a pro-government rally drew over a thousand people, with participants denouncing the use of violence during protests.

Hong Kong has been embroiled in its worst political crisis in decades since June with anti-government protests posing a populist challenge to China’s Xi and complicating ties between China and the United States at a time of heightened tensions including over trade.

Demonstrators have railed against what they see as Chinese meddling in freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, gradually ramping up the use of violence over many months of unrest.

They also say they are responding to excessive use of force by police. Last Sunday, a protest march drew around 800,000 people, according to organizers, suggesting the movement still has significant public support.

The government is planning more public dialogue through social media channels, as well as a second town hall session with top officials to try to bridge differences.

Despite the febrile public mood, China maintains it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula granting Hong Kong autonomy and says it fully supports Lam.

(Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu and Noah Sin; writing by James Pomfret; editing by Jason Neely)

Landslide democratic win puts pressure on leader of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong

Landslide democratic win puts pressure on leader of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong
By Twinnie Siu and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s leader pledged to listen to public opinion on Monday and referred to deep-seated problems in society after a landslide election victory by opponents of Chinese rule amid months of sometimes violent pro-democracy unrest.

Democratic candidates secured almost 90% of 452 district council seats in Sunday’s poll, held during a rare weekend lull in clashes with police, despite a strongly resourced and mobilized pro-establishment opposition.

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, Carrie Lam, said the government respected the results and wished “the peaceful, safe and orderly situation to continue”.

“Quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society,” Lam said.

The government would “listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect”, her statement said.

The elections saw record turnout after six months of protests and brought upset wins for democrats against heavyweight pro-Beijing opponents, greeted in some voting centers by chants of “Liberate Hong Kong” and “Revolution Now”.

While district councils deal with local issues such as transport, their members also form part of the election committee for Hong Kong’s chief executive. This could give them some influence over the next vote in 2022, although they only account for 117 of its 1,200 members.

Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai described the election as the first step in the long way to full democracy. “This district election shows that the central government needs to face the demands of a democratic system,” he said.

Along with universal suffrage, the protesters’ demands include an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality.

The voting ended with no major disruptions across the city of 7.4 million people on a day that saw massive, though orderly, queues form outside voting centers.

“This is the power of democracy. This is a democratic tsunami,” said Tommy Cheung, a former student protest leader who won a seat in the Yuen Long district close to China’s border.

FIRST STEP?

When asked if the chief executive should consider her position in light of the election results, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing “firmly supports” Lam’s leadership.

Hong Kong’s most urgent task was to restore order and stop the violence, Geng told a daily press briefing.

In self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own, the Presidential Office expressed “great admiration and support” for the election result.

“The election fully demonstrates Hong Kong people’s absolute will to pursue freedom and democracy,” it said.

The number of seats held by the pro-democracy camp more than quadrupled and turnout, at 71%, was almost double the number in the previous polls four years ago.

Starry Lee, chairwoman of the city’s largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, apologized for her party’s performance.

“For this major defeat, we do not want to find any excuses and reasons,” said Lee. She said the party rejected her offer to resign earlier on Monday.

‘PATH OF STRUGGLE’

Former student leader Lester Shum, who won a seat, said district councils were just one path to democracy. “In future, we must find other paths of struggle to keep fighting,” he said.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency announced the completion of the election, but did not say which side had won.

“Rioters, in concert with external forces, have continuously committed and escalated violence, resulting in social and political confrontation,” it said. “…Months of social unrest have seriously disrupted the electoral process.”

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering and says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula for the former British colony put in place when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Police say they have shown restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.

Britain said it welcomed Lam’s promise to “seriously reflect” on the result.

Jimmy Sham, a leader of the Civil Human Rights Front, which organized some of the anti-government rallies, won his electoral contest, while some pro-Beijing heavyweights, such as Junius Ho, a hate-figure among protesters for his abrasive comments, lost.

Ho described the outcome on Facebook as “an unusual result”.

Sham and other democrats entered the Polytechnic University to urge police to end a standoff and allow humanitarian assistance to those few protesters trapped inside in now filthy conditions, with fears rising about their physical and emotional health.

The university is guarded round the clock by riot police, after around 1,100 were arrested last week. Some were held during escape attempts that included trying to clamber down ropes to waiting motor-bikes, with protesters throwing petrol bombs and police responding with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.

There was a small standoff between police and protesters outside the campus on Monday evening, with many shouting “come out” and hurling abuse at police.

The protests started over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but rapidly evolved into calls for full democracy, posing the biggest populist challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Felix Tam, Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Kate Lamb, Sarah Wu and Josh Smith in Hong Kong, Yimou Lee in Taipei and Vincent Lee and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing; Writing by James Pomfret, Marius Zaharia and Nick Macfie; Editing by Paul Tait, Simon Cameron-Moore and Philippa Fletcher)

Hong Kong violence prompts reminder that China troops close at hand

Hong Kong violence prompts reminder that China troops close at hand
By James Pomfret and Clare Jim

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police shot and critically wounded a protester and a man was set on fire on Monday in violence that prompted leader Carrie Lam to denounce “enemies of the people” and drew a chilling warning from a senior Chinese newspaper editor.

Protesters threw petrol bombs at police after a weekend of clashes across the Chinese-ruled territory, marking a dramatic escalation in more than five months of often violent pro-democracy unrest.

“The violence has far exceeded the call for democracy and the demonstrators are now the people’s enemy,” Hong Kong chief executive Lam said in a defiant televised address.

“If there’s still any wishful thinking that by escalating violence, the Hong Kong … government will yield to pressure, to satisfy the so-called political demands, I’m making this statement clear and loud here: that will not happen.”

Police fired tear gas in the narrow streets of the Central business district where some protesters, crouching behind umbrellas, blocked streets as office workers crowded the pavements and hurled anti-government abuse.

Some passersby took cover inside the Landmark mall, one of the oldest and most expensive, as volleys of tear gas rained down.

There have been almost daily protests in Hong Kong, but it was rare for tear gas to be fired during working hours in Central, lined with bank headquarters and top-brand shops. Some offices closed early.

China has a garrison of up to 12,000 troops in Hong Kong who have kept to barracks throughout the unrest, but it has vowed to crush any attempts at independence, a demand for a very small minority of protesters.

The editor in chief of China’s Global Times tabloid, published by the state-owned People’s Daily, said Hong Kong police had nothing to be scared of.

“You have the backing of not only Hong Kong and Chinese people, but also Chinese soldiers and People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong,” Hu Xijin wrote on his blog. “They can go into Hong Kong to provide support at any time.”

SHOOTING CAUGHT ON VIDEO

Police fired live rounds at close range at protesters in Sai Wan Ho on the eastern side of Hong Kong island and one 21-year-old protester was wounded. Police said the victim was in critical condition.

Resident Anson Yip, 36, said protesters were building a road block when police ran to the scene.

“They didn’t fight and the police ran and directly shot. There were three sounds, like ‘pam, pam, pam’,” Yip said.

Video footage showed polystyrene boxes and other debris littering a crossing and blocking traffic. A protester wearing a white hoodie and mask walks towards a policeman, as if to challenge him. The officer draws his gun and points it at him at close range and grabs him round the neck.

As the officer holds the man with his left hand, he shoots another approaching masked protester at close range with his right hand. Three shots ring out and the man falls to the ground.

The fallen man is pinned to the ground by an officer holding a gun to his head. The man in white escapes.

A friend visited the wounded man in hospital.

“My friend didn’t actually attack the police or do anything,” Rigan, 19, said. “They just shot him. My friend is optimistic, friendly and willing to help others.”

The man fell just a couple of metres from a large makeshift memorial to a student who died from a fall in a car park last week, the blood staining the street next to candles, flowers, and anti-government posters.

“The live rounds fired by police are clear evidence of reckless use of force,” Amnesty International Hong Kong said in a statement. “Another policeman was seen driving at high speed into a group of protesters on a motorbike. These are not policing measures – these are officers out of control with a mindset of retaliation.”

Police said the motorcycling officer had been suspended.

Video images online also showed a man dousing petrol on another and setting him on fire outside Ma On Shan Plaza in the New Territories. Engulfed in flames, the man was able to rip off his shirt and douse the blaze. Police said he was in critical condition.

More than 60 people were wounded on Monday, Lam said in her address.

CAMPUS CHAOS

The unrest also spread to densely populated Mong Kok on the Kowloon peninsula, often the site of street clashes. Police used water cannon and tear gas to try to break up protesters who regrouped, digging up bricks to throw at police and blocking Nathan Road, a major artery. A taxi driver who drove close to the crowds was beaten.

The clashes looked set to last into the night as they have done many times before.

Police said more than 120 places has been either vandalised or blocked on Monday. Some 266 people had been arrested since last Monday.

Protesters are angry about what they see as police brutality and meddling by Beijing in the freedoms guaranteed to the former British colony by the “one country, two systems” formula put in place when the territory returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering and has blamed Western countries for stirring up trouble.

The violence comes after student Chow Tsz-lok, 22, died in hospital last week following a fall as protesters were being dispersed by police.

Police fired tear gas at Chinese University, where students hurled petrol bombs and barricaded the campus like a fortress. There were at least four arrests.

“I feel a strong sense of helplessness,” said one Chinese University student who gave his name as Chan. “Who wouldn’t want to attend class if they could? The government still isn’t listening to us.”

The university said it would again suspend classes on Tuesday.

Protesters threw petrol bombs at police at the Polytechnic University on the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour. Petrol bombs were also thrown at Hong Kong University on the main island.

Hong Kong’s stock market <.HSI>, closed down 2.6%, outpacing losses in other parts of the region.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Clare Jim, Kate Lamb, Josh Smith, Sarah Wu, Donny Kwok, Twinnie Siu, Anne Marie Roantree; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Jeers force Hong Kong leader to abandon address with no olive branch on offer

Jeers force Hong Kong leader to abandon address with no olive branch on offer
By Clare Jim and Twinnie Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam had to abandon her policy speech because of jeering lawmakers on Wednesday but later offered no direct olive branch to pro-democracy protesters, hoping instead to ease resentment by building more public housing.

Lam, who had to broadcast the annual address via a video link after the rowdy scenes in the Legislative Council, had hoped to try to restore confidence in her administration after four months of often violent anti-government and anti-China protests.

She gave up initial attempts to deliver the address after pro-democracy lawmakers called out for “five demands, not one less” and projected the protest rallying cry on to a backdrop behind her.

The demands include universal suffrage for the Chinese-ruled city and an independent inquiry into what they say has been excessive force by police in dealing with the unrest.

Protesters have trashed government buildings, including the Legislative Council, daubed businesses seen as pro-China with graffiti, set street fires and thrown petrol bombs at police who have responded with water canon, tear gas, rubber bullets and several live rounds.

Police have arrested more than 2,300 people since June. Thousands have been wounded, including two shot by live rounds.

In her policy statement, Lam was unapologetic about her government’s response to the protests, which has included introducing British colonial-era emergency laws this month.

“Any acts that advocate Hong Kong’s independence and threaten the country’s sovereignty, security and development interests will not be tolerated,” she said.

“Despite the stormy times and overwhelming difficulties Hong Kong is experiencing, I believe that so long as we accurately adhere to the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, we will be able to get out of the impasse.”

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the protesters were trying to humiliate and bring down the Hong Kong government. “There is no simple solution,” he said.

The protesters are angry at what they see as Beijing’s tightening grip on Hong Kong, which was guaranteed 50 years of freedoms under the “one country, two systems” when Britain returned the city to China in 1997.

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 has warned that any attempt to divide China would be crushed.

A Norwegian lawmaker, Guri Melby, tweeted that she had nominated the Hong Kong people for the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize for their stand for freedom of speech and democracy.

Lam later told a news conference that she had held “closed door” meetings with some members of the protest movement and when the unrest ended she would hold more.

RESIGNATION CALLS

Pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan said Lam should resign.

“Both her hands are soaked with blood. We hope Carrie Lam withdraws and quits,” an emotional Chan told reporters.

In her news conference, Lam rejected two of the protesters’ five demands – amnesty for those charged and universal suffrage – saying the first was illegal and the second beyond the chief executive’s power.

Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front in a statement also called for Lam to step down.

“We urge Carrie Lam to stop destroying Hong Kong, respond to the five major demands, and step down,” it said. Lam has for months rejected calls to step down.

The leader of the group, Jimmy Sham, was attacked hours later by a group of men in the gritty Mong Kok district on the Kowloon peninsula. Photographs on social media showed a bloodied Sham laying in the street. It is the second time he has been attacked since the protests began.

“It is not hard to link this incident to a spreading political terror in order to threaten and inhibit the legitimate exercise of natural and legal rights,” said the group.

Hong Kong’s unrest was ignited by an extradition bill, which could have seen residents sent to Communist Party-controlled mainland courts for trial. Lam has said the bill has been withdrawn, but the suspension of the legislature meant it could not be formally dropped.

Densely populated Hong Kong boasts some of the world’s most expensive real estate and the inability of many young people to get a place of their own has fueled the protests.

Lam’s housing policy is one of the boldest in recent years, vowing to take back large tracts of land held by a handful of powerful developers and create public housing.

“We are determined to create home ownership opportunities for people of different income groups such that they will happily make Hong Kong their home,” Lam said.

Lam said about 700 hectares of land in the New Territories would be brought back into public use under what is known as a land resumption ordinance. More than half of the land would be taken back in the next few years.

No Hong Kong leader has take back land from private developers since the handover.

Pro-establishment lawmaker Abraham Shek, who represents the real estate sector, rejected the policy, and the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance party said the policy speech lacked concrete measures.

“It’s a conservative, procrastinating blueprint with few new ideas,” said the party’s chairwoman, Starry Lee.

Major developers, including Henderson Land , New World Development and Sun Hung Kai Properties, are sitting on “no less than 1,000 hectares” of agricultural land, according to government estimates.

(Reporting By Donny Kwok, Clare Jim, Sarah Wu, Twinnie Siu, James Pomfret and Jessie Pang; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree, Farah Master and Michael Perry; Editing by William Maclean and Nick Macfie)

Police fire tear gas as protests swell after Hong Kong imposes emergency powers

By Clare Jim and Noah Sin

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam invoked colonial-era emergency powers last used more than 50 years ago on Friday, in a dramatic move that enraged protesters who took to the streets of the Chinese-ruled city within hours.

Lam, speaking at a news conference, said a ban on face masks would take effect on Saturday under the emergency laws that allow authorities to “make any regulations whatsoever” in whatever they deem to be in the public interest.

China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office praised the move in a statement that said the protests were evolving into a “color revolution”, a term coined to refer to popular uprisings in Ukraine and other former Soviet states that swept away long-standing rulers, with interference from external forces.

The emergency laws allow curfews, censorship of the media, and control of harbors, ports and transport, although Lam did not specify any particular action that might follow beyond the mask ban.

Nearly four months of anti-government protests have plunged Hong Kong into its biggest political crisis since its handover from Britain to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that granted it autonomy and broad freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland.

Lam said her move was necessary to quell escalating violence.

But as darkness fell, defiant demonstrators took to the streets to vent their anger, vandalizing what they perceived to be China-friendly businesses and blocking road in the heart of the financial center. Police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in flashpoint districts across the territory, including Causeway Bay, Sha Tin and Wong Tai Sin.

Shopping malls, banks and shops across Hong Kong island had closed early in anticipation of violence as some protesters burned Chinese flags and chanted “You burn with us”, and “Hong Kongers, revolt”.

“The anti-mask law has become a tool of tyranny,” said Samuel Yeung, an 18-year-old university student, as crowds swelled in the main financial district of Central, beneath gleaming skyscrapers that house the Asia headquarters of companies including HSBC.

“They can make use of the emergency law to enact any policies or laws that the government wants. There’s no rule of law anymore. We can only be united and protest.”

“NOT A STATE OF EMERGENCY”

What began as opposition to a proposed extradition law, which could have seen people sent for trial in mainland courts, has grown into a broad pro-democracy movement and a serious challenge to Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

The protesters are angry about what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in their city’s affairs. China dismisses accusations it is meddling and has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of stirring up anti-China sentiment.

On Friday evening, thousands of demonstrators – many blue-collar workers and unmasked residents – gathered across the territory, filling shopping malls and blocking roads. Bus routes were suspended and rail operator MTR closed stations.

Many protesters wear masks to hide their identity due to fears employers could face pressure to take action against them.

“Almost all protesters wear masks, with the intention of hiding their identity. That’s why they have become more unbridled,” said Lam.

“We can’t keep the existing regulations idle and let violence escalate and the situation continue to deteriorate.”

Lam described the territory as being in serious danger, but not in a state of emergency.

Pro-Beijing groups had been pushing for a mask ban, but it was not clear how the government would implement it in a city where many of its 7.4 million residents wear them every day to protect against infection following the outbreak of the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003.

Police can stop anyone in public and ask them to remove a mask if the officer believes it may prevent identification, according to the law. Exceptions are made if the person wearing a mask can prove they need it for medical, religious or professional reasons.

Offenders face a maximum fine of HK$25,000 ($3,200) and imprisonment for a year, according to details of the prohibition published by the government.

“SOMETHING DRASTIC”

Authorities had already loosened guidelines on the use of force by police, according to documents seen by Reuters.

That came just before an escalation in violence on Tuesday, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, when police fired about 1,800 volleys of tear gas, 900 rubber bullets and six live bullets – one of which hit an 18-year-old, the first time a protester had been hit be live fire.

The student, Tony Tsang, was shot at close range as he fought with a policeman. He is stable in hospital and has been charged with rioting, which carries a maximum 10-year sentence and assaulting an officer.

Pro-democracy campaigners condemned Lam’s latest decision.

“This is an ancient, colonial set of regulations, and you don’t use them unless you can’t legislate anymore,” said Martin Lee, a veteran activist and one of the city’s most prominent lawyers. “Once you start, there’s no end to it.”

The U.N. human rights office said Hong Kong must protect the right to freedom of assembly and Britain urged its former colony not to aggravate tension.

Some Hong Kong’s businesses, struggling with a dip in tourism and retail sales due to the protests, gave the law a warmer welcome.

“I agree with it at this point,” said businessman Allan Zeman, who is also an economic adviser to Lam. “You have to do something drastic to end the violence.”

But Hong Kong shares fell on Friday, hitting one-month lows.

(Reporting by Clare Jim and Noah Sin; Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu, Poppy McPherson, Donny Kwok, James Pomfret, Jessie Pang, Felix Tam and Farah Master in Hong Kong, Sun Yilei in Shanghai and Chen Aizhu in Singapore; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Bill Rigby; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson)

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)

Lantern-waving Hong Kong protesters take to hills, as leader pledges housing reform

By Jessie Pang and Lukas Job

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters took to the hills to form flashlight-carrying human chains on Friday, using the colorful Mid-Autumn Festival as a backdrop to the latest in more than three months of sometimes violent unrest.

The peaceful protests, on a day when families traditionally gather to gaze at the moon and eat mooncakes while children swing colorful lanterns from the end of sticks, came after Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam promised to focus on housing and jobs to try to end the turmoil.

Lam, who said she caused “unforgivable havoc” by igniting the crisis and would quit if she had the choice, said in a Facebook post her government would increase the supply of housing in the Chinese-ruled city.

“Housing and people’s livelihoods are the main priorities,” Lam said. “The government will add to housing supply measures which will be continuously put in place and not missed.”

Hong Kong has some of the world’s most expensive real estate and many young people say the city’s housing policy is unfair, benefiting the rich while forcing the less well-off to live with their parents or rent “shoe box” apartments at exorbitant prices.

Sun Hung Kai Properties, which reported its earnings on Thursday, said the current unrest was a wake-up call to both the government and private companies to build more housing.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan told reporters a new vacancy tax aims to push developers to launch completed apartments on to the market as soon as possible.

As darkness fell on Friday night, protesters armed with flashlights, mobile phones and lanterns gathered at Victoria Peak and Lion Rock.

They lined the path running along the north face of the Peak, looking across the harbor to Lion Rock in the distance, with mainland China beyond.

Protesters gathered in their hundreds across the territory, singing and chanting, in contrast to the violence of many previous weekends when police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.

“Today, there’s not many here because we have an event in every district, and because this area is not a residential area, it’s a working area full of offices,” said protester Jason Liu in the Admiralty district of government offices and hotels.

The spark for the protests was a now-withdrawn extradition bill and concerns that Beijing is eroding civil liberties, but many young protesters are also angry at sky-high living costs and a lack of job prospects.

The demonstrations started in June in response to a bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts, but have broadened into calls for greater democracy.

The former British colony returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland – including a much-cherished independent legal system.

At lunch on Friday, hundreds of pro-Beijing supporters packed into a shopping mall waving China flags and singing the Chinese national anthem.

Sit-ins at shopping malls are also planned over the weekend.

Activists also plan to gather outside the British consulate on Sunday to demand that China honors the Sino-British Joint Declaration that was signed in 1984, laying out Hong Kong’s post-1997 future.

China says Hong Kong is now its internal affair. It denies meddling in Hong Kong and has accused the United States, Britain and others of fomenting the unrest.

Britain says it has a legal responsibility to ensure China abides by its obligations under the Joint Declaration.

Hong Kong is facing its first recession in a decade as a result of the unrest. A surge in migration applications suggests more locals are making plans to leave.

China has called on its biggest state firms to take a more active role in Hong Kong, including stepping up investment and asserting more control over companies.

Multiple Hong Kong events and conferences have been canceled and the number of visitors plunged 40 percent in August. The city’s premier women’s tennis event scheduled for October has been postponed.

Organizers also called off the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Matilda the Musical”, due to run from Sept. 20 to Oct. 20.

Police on Tuesday set up an “anti-violence hotline” on which people could call in giving intelligence on planned unrest.

On Friday they announced it had been shut down because of “different opinions”.

(Reporting by Twinnie Siu, Clare Jim, Noah Sin, Marius Zaharia, Poppy McPherson, Lukas Job, Amr Abdallah and Farah Master; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Giles Elgood and Alex Richardson)

Hong Kong leader withdraws extradition bill, but some say too little too late

FILE PHOTO: Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam holds a news conference in Hong Kong, China, September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

By James Pomfret and Clare Jim

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Wednesday withdrew an extradition bill that triggered months of often violent protests so the Chinese-ruled city can move forward from a “highly vulnerable and dangerous” place and find solutions.

Her televised announcement came after Reuters reports on Friday and Monday revealing that Beijing had thwarted an earlier proposal from Lam to withdraw the bill and that she had said privately that she would resign if she could, according to an audio recording obtained by Reuters.

“Lingering violence is damaging the very foundations of our society, especially the rule of law,” a somber Lam said as she sat wearing a navy blue jacket and pink shirt with her hands folded on a desk in front of her.

The withdrawal, a key demand of protesters, came after unrest that drove the former British colony to the edge of anarchy as the government repeatedly refused to back down – igniting pitched battles across the city of seven million, the arrests of more than 1,000 protesters, and leaving a society deeply divided.

Many are furious about perceived police brutality and the number of arrests – 1,183 at the latest count – and want an independent inquiry.

“The government will formally withdraw the bill in order to fully allay public concerns,” Lam said.

“I pledge that the government will seriously follow up the recommendations of the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Council) report. From this month, I and my principal officials will reach out to the community to start a direct dialogue … we must find ways to address the discontent in society and look for solutions.”

The protests began in March but snowballed in June and have since evolved into a push for greater democracy for the city which returned to China in 1997.

The bill would have allowed extraditions to mainland China where courts are controlled by the Communist Party.

It was not immediately clear if killing the bill would help end the unrest. The immediate reaction appeared skeptical and the real test will be how many people take to the streets.

Some lawmakers said the move should have come earlier.

“The damage has been done. The scars and wounds are still bleeding,” said pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo. “She thinks she can use a garden hose to put out a hill fire. That’s not going to be acceptable.”

WINNING OVER THE MODERATES?

In the voice recording obtained by Reuters, Lam said at a meeting last week that her room to find a political solution to the crisis was “very limited”, as authorities in Beijing now viewed the situation as a matter of national security.

Beijing’s apparent endorsement of the withdrawal of the bill comes after the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rule since he took power in 2012.

Others said the move was not enough.

“This won’t appease the protesters,” said Boris Chen, 37, who works in financial services. “In any kind of time, people will find something they can get angry about.”

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Cheung Kwok-kwan said Lam’s announcement was not a compromise to appease those promoting violence, but a bid to win over moderates in the protest camp.

“It was likely speaking to the so-called peaceful, rational, non-violent people who were unsatisfied with the government’s response before,” he said.

One woman, Pearl, 69, said the protests were no longer about the bill.

“Some of those guys may change their minds, maybe, but just a minority,” she said of the protesters. “Some of them just want to create trouble and they will continue to do so.”

“Too little, too late,” said Joshua Wong, a leader of the 2014 pro-democracy protests which were the precursor to the current unrest, on his Facebook page.

The chief executive’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill’s withdrawal.

Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index <.HSI> jumped after the report of the bill’s imminent withdrawal, trading up about 4%. The property index also jumped.

Lam had said before that the bill was “dead”, but she did not withdraw it.

The protesters’ other four demands are: the retraction of the word “riot” to describe rallies, the release of all arrested demonstrators, an independent inquiry into the police perceived brutality and the right for Hong Kong people to democratically choose their own leaders.

CHINA’S WARNINGS

Hong Kong returned to China under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows it to keep freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, like the freedom to protest and an independent legal system, hence the anger at the extradition bill and perceived creeping influence by Beijing.

China denies it is meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs but warned again on Tuesday that it would not sit idly by if the unrest threatened Chinese security and sovereignty.

China has regularly denounced the protests and warned about the impact on Hong Kong’s economy.

Cathay Pacific Airways <0293.HK> has been one of the biggest corporate casualties.

China’s aviation regulator demanded it suspend staff from flying over its airspace if they were involved in, or supported, the demonstrations. The airline has laid off at least 20 including pilots and cabin crew.

The airline on Wednesday announced the resignation of chairman John Slosar, following the departure of CEO Rupert Hogg last month.

The unrest has shown no sign of easing.

Riot police fired beanbag guns and used pepper spray – both anti-riot weapons – to clear demonstrators from outside the Mong Kok police station and in Prince Edward metro station, with one man taken out on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over his face, television footage showed.

The police, who have repeatedly denied using excessive force, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Lukas Job, Noah Sin, Donny Kwok, Anne Marie Roantree; Writing by Joe Brock and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel)