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)

Special Report: Hong Kong leader says she would ‘quit’ if she could, fears her ability to resolve crisis now ‘very limited’

FILE PHOTO: Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam holds a news conference in Hong Kong, China, August 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang/File Photo

By Greg Torode, James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said she has caused “unforgivable havoc” by igniting the political crisis engulfing the city and would quit if she had a choice, according to an audio recording of remarks she made last week to a group of businesspeople.

At the closed-door meeting, Lam told the group that she now has “very limited” room to resolve the crisis because the unrest has become a national security and sovereignty issue for China amid rising tensions with the United States.

“If I have a choice,” she said, speaking in English, “the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology.”

Lam’s dramatic and at times anguished remarks offer the clearest view yet into the thinking of the Chinese leadership as it navigates the unrest in Hong Kong, the biggest political crisis to grip the country since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Hong Kong has been convulsed by sometimes violent protests and mass demonstrations since June, in response to a proposed law by Lam’s administration that would allow people suspected of crimes on the mainland to be extradited to face trial in Chinese courts. The law has been shelved, but Lam has been unable to end the upheaval. Protesters have expanded their demands to include complete withdrawal of the proposal, a concession her administration has so far refused. Large demonstrations wracked the city again over the weekend.

Lam suggested that Beijing had not yet reached a turning point. She said Beijing had not imposed any deadline for ending the crisis ahead of National Day celebrations scheduled for October 1. And she said China had “absolutely no plan” to deploy People’s Liberation Army troops on Hong Kong streets. World leaders have been closely watching whether China will send in the military to quell the protests, as it did a generation ago in the bloody Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing.

Lam noted, however, that she had few options once an issue had been elevated “to a national level,” a reference to the leadership in Beijing, “to a sort of sovereignty and security level, let alone in the midst of this sort of unprecedented tension between the two big economies in the world.”

In such a situation, she added, “the room, the political room for the chief executive who, unfortunately, has to serve two masters by constitution, that is the central people’s government and the people of Hong Kong, that political room for maneuvering is very, very, very limited.”

Three people who attended the meeting confirmed that Lam had made the comments in a talk that lasted about half an hour. A 24-minute recording of her remarks was reviewed by Reuters. The meeting was one of a number of “closed-door sessions” that Lam said she has been doing “with people from all walks of life” in Hong Kong.

Responding to Reuters, a spokesman for Lam said she attended two events last week that included business people, and that both were effectively private. “We are therefore not in a position to comment on what the Chief Executive has said at those events,” the spokesman said.

China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, a high-level agency under China’s cabinet, the State Council, did not respond to questions submitted by Reuters.

China’s State Council Information Office did not immediately respond to questions from Reuters.

‘THE PRICE WOULD BE TOO HUGE’

The Hong Kong protests mark the biggest popular challenge to the rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012. Xi is also grappling with an escalating strategic rivalry with the United States and a slowing economy. Tensions have risen as the world’s two biggest economies are embroiled in a tit-for-tat trade war. Disagreements over Taiwan and over China’s moves to tighten its control in the South China Sea have further frayed relations between Beijing and Washington.

Lam’s remarks are consistent with a Reuters report published on Friday that revealed how leaders in Beijing are effectively calling the shots on handling the crisis in Hong Kong. The Chinese government rejected a recent proposal by Lam to defuse the conflict that included withdrawing the extradition bill altogether, three people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Asked about the report, China’s Foreign Ministry said that the central government “supports, respects and understands” Lam’s decision to suspend the bill. The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid published by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, denounced it as “fake.”

As protests escalated, Lam suspended the bill on June 15. Several weeks later, on July 9, she announced that it was “dead.” That failed to mollify the protesters, who expanded their demands to include an inquiry into police violence and democratic reform. Many have also called for an end to what they see as meddling by Beijing in the affairs of Hong Kong.

The tone of Lam’s comments in the recording is at odds with her more steely public visage. At times, she can be heard choking up as she reveals the personal impact of the three-month crisis.

“For a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong is unforgivable,” she said.

Lam told the meeting that the leadership in Beijing was aware of the potential damage to China’s reputation that would arise from sending troops into Hong Kong to quell the protests.

“They know that the price would be too huge to pay,” she said.

“They care about the country’s international profile,” she said. “It has taken China a long time to build up to that sort of international profile and to have some say, not only being a big economy but a responsible big economy, so to forsake all those positive developments is clearly not on their agenda.”

But she said China was “willing to play long” to ride out the unrest, even if it meant economic pain for the city, including a drop in tourism and losing out on capital inflows such as initial public offerings.

‘BIGGEST SADNESS’

Lam also spoke about the importance of the rule of law in Hong Kong and restoring stability to the city of more than seven million, as well as the need to improve efforts to get the government’s message out. At the end, applause can be heard on the recording.

While Lam said that now was not the time for “self-pity,” she spoke about her profound frustration with not being able “to reduce the pressure on my frontline police officers,” or to provide a political solution to “pacify the large number of peaceful protesters who are so angry with the government, with me in particular.”

Her inability “to offer a political situation in order to relieve the tension,” she said, was the source of her “biggest sadness.”

Lam also spoke about the impact the crisis has had on her daily life.

“Nowadays it is extremely difficult for me to go out,” she said. “I have not been on the streets, not in shopping malls, can’t go to a hair salon. I can’t do anything because my whereabouts will be spread around social media.”

If she were to appear in public, she said, “you could expect a big crowd of black T-shirts and black-masked young people waiting for me.” Many of the protesters wear black at demonstrations.

After enjoying relatively high popularity in the initial part of her tenure, Lam is now the least popular of any of the four leaders who have run Hong Kong since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, according to veteran pollster Robert Chung, who runs the Public Opinion Research Institute.

HONG KONG ‘IS NOT DEAD YET’

Lam was chosen as city leader in March 2017, vowing to “unite society” and heal divisions in Hong Kong, which remains by far the freest city under Chinese rule. Under the “one country, two systems” formula agreed with Britain, Hong Kong enjoys an array of personal freedoms that don’t exist in mainland China. One of the most cherished of those freedoms is the city’s British-style system of independent courts and rule of law. The protesters say the extradition law would erode that bulwark of liberty.

According to a biography on the Hong Kong government website, Lam, a devout Catholic, attended St Francis’ Canossian College. Her mother, who took care of seven family members on a daily basis, was her role model and inspiration, the biography said. An election manifesto said Lam came from a “grassroots” family and did her homework on a bunk-bed. After studying sociology at the University of Hong Kong, she went on to a distinguished career as a civil servant in Hong Kong. She was elected city leader in March 2017 by a 1,200-member election committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.

In her early days as leader, Lam pushed through a series of controversial government policies, drawing public criticism in Hong Kong but winning praise from Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

On July 1, 2017, the day she was sworn in, Lam donned a white hard hat as she walked with Xi to inspect the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, which physically links Hong Kong to mainland China. Critics say the bridge could further weaken Hong Kong’s autonomy by deepening its physical links with southern China.

The effective expulsion last year of Financial Times editor Victor Mallet, whose visa wasn’t renewed after he hosted an event at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club with the leader of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, also drew condemnation at home and abroad. Lam and her government later came under fire for banning the party and the disqualification of pro-democracy lawmakers.

Xi praised Lam’s leadership during a visit to Beijing in December 2018. “The central government fully endorses the work of Chief Executive Lam” and the Hong Kong government, Xi said, according to a report in the state news agency Xinhua.

Pollster Robert Chung said Lam’s success in pushing through many controversial proposals bolstered her belief she would be able to ram through the extradition bill.

“All these things made her feel so confident, and when we had the first demonstration, she still thought, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get it through in two days and things will be over,'” Chung said. “But she was totally wrong.”

At the meeting last week, Lam said the extradition bill was her doing and was meant to “plug legal loopholes in Hong Kong’s system.”

“This is not something instructed, coerced by the central government,” she said.

She expressed deep regrets about her push to pass the bill. “This has proven to be very unwise given the circumstances,” she said. “And this huge degree of fear and anxiety amongst people of Hong Kong vis-à-vis the mainland of China, which we were not sensitive enough to feel and grasp.”

She gave her audience a gloomy outlook. The police, she said, would continue to arrest those responsible for “this escalating violence,” a group that the government initially estimated numbered between one thousand and two thousand.

It would be “naïve,” she said, to “paint you a rosy picture, that things will be fine.” She did, however, express hope in the city’s ultimate “resurrection.”

“Hong Kong is not dead yet. Maybe she is very, very sick, but she is not dead yet,” she said.

(Editing by Peter Hirschberg and David Lague.)

Hong Kong leader says dialogue and ‘mutual respect’ offer way out of chaos

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam holds a news conference in Hong Kong, China, August 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang

By Noah Sin and Felix Tam

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday she hoped a peaceful weekend anti-government protest was the start of efforts to restore calm and that talks with non-violent protesters would provide “a way out” for the Chinese-ruled city.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied peacefully in torrential rain on Sunday in the eleventh week of what have been often violent demonstrations.

“I sincerely hope that this was the beginning of society returning to peace and staying away from violence,” Lam said.

“We will immediately start the work to establish a platform for dialogue. This dialogue, I hope, will be based on a mutual understanding and respect and find a way out for today’s Hong Kong.”

Anger erupted in June over a now-suspended bill that would allow criminal suspects in the former British colony to be extradited to mainland China for trial.

The unrest has been fueled by broader worries about the erosion of freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula put in place after Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, including an independent judiciary and the right to protest.

Three people were wounded, one critically, in a knife attack by an unknown assailant near a “Lennon Wall” of colorful pro-protest messages in the city’s Tseung Kwan O district in the New Territories overnight, police said. One man was arrested.

The protests have prompted sharp reactions from Beijing, which has accused foreign countries, including the United States, of fomenting unrest in the territory. China has also sent clear warning that forceful intervention is possible, with paramilitary forces holding drills in neighboring Shenzhen.

Britain’s Foreign Office said it was extremely concerned about reports that a Hong Kong staff member had been detained in mainland China, but there was no immediate suggestion that there was any link to the protests.

Staff member Simon Cheng did not return to work on Aug. 9 after visiting the neighboring mainland city of Shenzhen the previous day, Hong Kong news website HK01 reported. China’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment. Hong Kong police did not respond immediately to requests for comment.

Twitter Inc and Facebook Inc also said on Monday they had dismantled a state-backed social media campaign originating in mainland China that sought to undermine protests in Hong Kong.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang declined direct comment on the Twitter and Facebook actions, but defended the right of Chinese people to make their voices heard.

Further demonstrations are planned in the next few days, including by MTR subway workers on Wednesday, secondary school students on Thursday and accountants on Friday.

The protests are exacting a toll on the city’s economy and tourism, with the Asian financial hub on the verge of its first recession in a decade.

Singapore universities have canceled exchange programs to Hong Kong after Singapore warned its citizens to defer travel there, news website Today reported.

Singapore’s foreign ministry said in an advisory last week large protests in Hong Kong had become unpredictable and could turn violent with little or no notice.

AGGRESSIVE TACTICS

Sunday’s protest 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 airport.

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

Aside from seeking 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.

“The bill is dead,” Lam told Tuesday’s news briefing. “There is no plan to revive the bill, especially in light of the public concerns.”

Police have been criticized 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.

Lam said the police watchdog had set up a task force to investigate complaints.

She said she hoped Hong Kong had “unique advantages in attracting overseas companies”, stressing the rule of law, but warned of the risk of pressure on the economy which shrank 0.4% in April-June from the previous quarter.

“The Hong Kong economy is facing the risk of downturn. We can see this from the data in the first half. Actually, I think the data in the first half has not fully reflected the seriousness of the problem,” she said.

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

Hogg’s departure was announced by Chinese state television 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 protests.

China’s State Council called on Monday for greater development of the southern city of Shenzhen and integration of its culture and economy with neighboring Hong Kong and Macau, a former Portuguese-run enclave that returned to China in 1999.

(Reporting by Felix Tam, Clare Jim, Noah Sin, Donny Kwok, Frah Master and Anne Marie Roantree; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Paul Tait)

China warns Hong Kong protesters not to ‘play with fire’

A demonstrator throws a traffic cone at a group of people opposing the anti-government protesters, during a demonstration in support of the city-wide strike and to call for democratic reforms in Hong Kong, China, August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Cate Cadell

BEIJING (Reuters) – Protesters in Hong Kong must not “play with fire” and mistake Beijing’s restraint for weakness, China said on Tuesday in its sharpest rebuke yet of the “criminals” behind demonstrations in the city whom it vowed to bring to justice.

Hong Kong has suffered weeks of sometimes violent protests that began with opposition to a now-suspended extradition law, which would have allowed suspects to be tried in mainland courts.

But the protests have swelled into a broader backlash against the government of the Asian financial hub, fueled by many residents’ fear of eroding freedoms under the increasingly tight control of the Communist Party in Beijing.

“I would like to warn all of the criminals: don’t ever misjudge the situation and mistake our restraint for weakness,” the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said in a document issued during a briefing in Beijing.

A small group of violent radicals were at the forefront of the protests, with “some kind-hearted citizens who have been misguided and coerced to join,” according to the document attributed to two officials, Yang Guang and Xu Luying.

It said anti-China forces were the “behind-the-scenes masterminds” who had “openly and brazenly emboldened” the protesters.

“We would like to make clear to the very small group of unscrupulous and violent criminals and the dirty forces behind them: those who play with fire will perish by it,” the office said.

“At the end of the day, they will eventually be punished.”

China has been quick to label U.S. officials as “black hands” instigating unrest in Hong Kong in an attempt to contain China’s development, but it has not provided any concrete evidence.

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers on Friday urged the Trump administration to suspend future sales of munitions and crowd-control equipment to Hong Kong police, which have been accused of using excessive force.

Police on Monday fired tear gas at protesters in the former British colony after a general strike hit transport and the city’s Beijing-backed leader, chief executive Carrie Lam, warned its prosperity was at risk.

The protests surpassed earlier shows of dissent in scale and intensity, seemingly stoked by Lam’s refusal once again to meet any of the protesters’ demands, including for her resignation and independent inquiries into police use of force.

The protests are the greatest political threat to Hong Kong’s government since the territory returned to Chinese rule in 1997, and one of the biggest popular challenges to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

‘CIVILIZED POWER’

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Hong Kong has remained in barracks since the protests started in April, leaving Hong Kong’s police force to deal with the massive demonstrations.

Last week, the PLA garrison there issued a video showing “anti-riot” exercises, and its top brass warned violence is “absolutely impermissible”.

Diplomats and foreign security analysts are watching the situation closely, but believe there’s little appetite in Beijing for the PLA to be deployed on the streets of Hong Kong.

So far, the central government and the PLA have said only that there are clear provisions in law covering the prospect of the force’s intervention in the city.

During the briefing, Yang called the PLA “a strong force that defends every inch of its sacred territory”, and said the central government would not allow any “turbulence” beyond the control of the Hong Kong government to threaten national unity or security.

“The PLA is a force of power but also a civilized power,” Yang said.

“As long as it has the strong support of the central government and the Chinese people, the Hong Kong government and police “are fully capable of punishing those criminal activities and restoring public order and stability”, he said.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell; writing by Michael Martina; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Darren Schuettler)

Police battle protesters as strike paralyses Hong Kong

Passenger exit a stalled train during a disruption of Mass Transit Railway (MTR) services by protesters at Fortress Hill station in Hong Kong, China August 5, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Donny Kwok and Clare Jim

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Police fired tear gas at protesters in multiple parts of Hong Kong on Monday after a general strike hit transport and the city’s Beijing-backed leader warned its prosperity was at risk.

The protests surpassed earlier shows of dissent in scale and intensity, seemingly stoked by Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam’s refusal once again to meet any of the protesters’ demands, while warning of an “extremely dangerous situation”.

What started several months ago as demonstrations over an extradition bill that would have let people be sent to mainland China for trial have grown into a much broader backlash against the city government and its political masters in Beijing.

The protests are the greatest political threat to the former British colony’s government since it returned to Chinese rule and one of the biggest popular challenges to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

Amid extensive disruptions to trains and traffic, tens of thousands of demonstrators fanned out across Hong Kong, spreading pockets of activism to most of its main three regions: Hong Kong island, Kowloon and the New Territories.

Police stations were besieged and roads occupied.

In the evening, a group of men armed with sticks tried to attack the black-clad protesters in the North Point district.

Riot police used tear gas in districts including Wong Tai Sin, Tin Shui Wai, Tai Po, and Admiralty close to the city’s government headquarters.

Speaking to the media for the first time in two weeks, Lam remained defiant, rejecting calls to resign, condemning violence and saying the government would be resolute.

“FAR EXCEEDED ORIGINAL DEMANDS”

She warned that the protests were putting Hong Kong on a path of no return and had hurt its economy.

“They claim they want a revolution and to restore Hong Kong. These actions have far exceeded their original political demands,” said a stern-faced Lam, flanked by some, but not all senior members of her administration.

“These illegal acts that challenge our country’s sovereignty, and jeopardize ‘one country two systems’, will destroy the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong,” Lam said, referring to the territory’s administrative system since 1997, when it was handed back to China.

Demonstrators fear China is gradually encroaching on the island’s cherished autonomy.

China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council said it would hold another news conference on Tuesday at 2.30 pm (0630 GMT), after one last Monday that announced no new major policy shifts by Beijing despite the upheavals.

“I don’t think the government is doing anything to heal society… They provide no solution,” said Jay Leung, 20, a university student who joined a protest, dismissing Lam’s words as a waste of time.

“I didn’t hear anything positive, she just made it worse,” added tourism worker Russell, 38.

Demonstrators blocked key roads, including three tunnels, cutting major arteries linking Hong Kong island and the Kowloon Peninsula. In Yuen Long district, a car rammed through a barricade, knocking down protesters.

Commuters struggled to get to work, with many rail and bus services suspended by activists who blocked trains from leaving stations, some by sitting in doorways.

ECONOMIC DAMAGE

Long lines of traffic snaked across Hong Kong island into the heart of the business center and hundreds of people were stranded at the airport, where more than 200 flights were canceled at one point.

Many businesses shut, and workers stayed home.

“Losing a bit of money now is not such a problem, (compared) with losing everything that the freedom of Hong Kong used to stand for,” said Mark Schmidt, 49, a restaurant manager who closed on Monday.

In an upmarket shopping mall in Sha Tin, scores of shops were shuttered, including clothing retailer H&M as well as luxury brands Chanel and Dior. Protesters in the shopping center chanted: “Strike! Support to the end.”

Many stores in the bustling shopping district of Causeway Bay were closed for part of the day as well as businesses close to the protests.

Members of the Hong Kong Disneyland Cast Members Union went on strike, as did many lifeguards, forcing authorities to close some beaches and swimming pools.

Police, who some have accused of using excessive force, said the situation was spiraling out of control.

Authorities said 420 people have been arrested over the protests since June 9, while police have fired 1,000 rounds of tear gas and about 160 rubber bullets.

The protesters’ demands include a complete withdrawal of the extradition bill and an independent inquiry into government handling of the crisis.

With tourist numbers falling and hotel occupancy rates slumping, the protests are piling pressure on a struggling economy.

IHS Markit’s July Purchasing Managers’ Index for Hong Kong showed private sector business activity dropped to its lowest level in a decade, also weighed down by the Sino-U.S. trade war.

“I would not be surprised if we see a technical recession – two consecutive quarters of contraction,” said Raymond Yeung, chief China economist at ANZ.

The benchmark Hang Seng Index closed down 2.9 percent, falling to its lowest level since January.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Donny Kwok, James Pomfret, Noah Sin, Twinnie Siu, Vimvam Tong, Kevin Liu, Lukas Job, Felix Tam; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Paul Tait, Clarence Fernandez, Simon Cameron-Moore and Andrew Cawthorne)

Hong Kong mothers march in support of anti-extradition students

People wave flashlights during a gathering of Hong Kong mothers to show their support for the city's young pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, China July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Pet

By Noah Sin and Vimvam Tong

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of mothers marched in Hong Kong on Friday in support of students who have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest against an extradition bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has asked to meet students in the Chinese-ruled city as she tries to fend off pressure after a month of protests over a proposed law that has plunged the Chinese-ruled city into turmoil.

Protesters stormed Hong Kong’s legislature on Monday, the 22nd anniversary of the former British colony’s return to China. This followed mass demonstrations last month against Lam’s extradition bill.

Beijing-backed Lam has suspended the bill but protesters are demanding a full withdrawal.

A woman holds a placard during a gathering of Hong Kong mothers to show their support for the city’s young pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, China July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

“Young people have already done a lot for us. We should at least stand out once for them. I am so distressed for them. Even though they seem a little bit violent … they didn’t hurt anyone,” said Carina Wan, 40, a primary school teacher on the mothers’ march.

“The ones who hurt us is the government. If they don’t release the young people, we will keep standing out.”

The organizers estimated that 8,000 mothers had joined the march, while the police put their number at 1,300.

In an emailed statement, a spokeswoman for Lam said on Thursday she had “recently started inviting young people of different backgrounds for a meeting, including university students and young people who have participated in recent protests”.

The student union at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST), one of eight major higher education institutions, turned down the offer, saying Lam had requested a closed-door meeting.

“The dialogue must be open to all Hong Kong citizens to participate, and allow everybody the right to speak,” the union said in a statement published on Facebook.

Lam’s spokeswoman said the meeting would be held in a “small-scale and closed-door manner” to ensure an “in-depth and frank exchange of views”.

A leader of the Hong Kong University Students’ Union, Jordan Pang, said he would only agree if the government promised not to investigate protesters involved in the protests.

“We don’t understand why she didn’t openly respond to the people’s demands but prefer to do it through a closed-door meeting,” Pang said.

“We want to ask if the government sincerely wants to communicate with young people or if it’s just another political PR show.”

The Hong Kong Bar Association (HKBA) renewed calls for the government to set up an independent inquiry to look into events on June 12, when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters, and also on Monday when demonstrators stormed the legislature.

“HKBA calls on the government to respond in a sincere way to the demands of the community voiced so emphatically over the past weeks,” it said. “A refusal to engage with the public over important and pressing issues is inimical to the rule of law.”

Hong Kong returned to China under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including freedom to protest and a much-cherished independent judiciary.

But many resent what they see as increasing meddling by the mainland and the erosion of those freedoms. Beijing denies the charge.

Students have echoed opposition calls in recent weeks for the withdrawal of the extradition bill, for Lam to step down and for an investigation into complaints of police brutality.

They have also called for Lam to stop labeling protesters “rioters” and to introduce genuine universal suffrage.

Students at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, another of the city’s eight higher education institutions, were also invited to meet Lam but had not decided how to respond, a source at the student union there said.

(Reporting by Noah Sin, Felix Tam and Meg Shen; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree, Nick Macfie and Hugh Lawson)

Hong Kong leader signals end to extradition bill but refuses to quit

Pro-democracy activists Nathan Law, Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow attend a news conference regarding the proposed extradition bill, outside the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong, China June 18, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Clare Jim and Noah Sin

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Tuesday signaled the end of a controversial extradition bill that she promoted and then postponed after some of the most violent protests since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

In a closely watched press conference, Lam apologized for the turmoil but refused to say the bill would be “withdrawn”, only that it wouldn’t be re-introduced during her time in office if public fears persist.

This was the strongest indicator yet that the government was effectively shelving legislation that would allow people to be extradited to mainland China to face trial, even if it fell short of protester demands for the government to scrap the bill altogether.

“Because this bill over the past few months has caused so much anxiety, and worries and differences in opinion, I will not, this is an undertaking, I will not proceed again with this legislative exercise if these fears and anxieties cannot be adequately addressed,” Lam told reporters.

Lam, appearing both contrite and defiant, used much of the same language as a previous press conference on Saturday when she announced a postponement of the bill. A day later, about two million people spilled on to the streets, many demanding that she step down.

Lam, asked repeatedly whether she would quit, refused to do so, saying there remained important work ahead in the next three years, which would bring her to the end of her current five-year term of office.

“After this incident, I think work in the next three years will be very difficult … but myself and my team will work harder to rebuild public confidence.”

Lam apologized for plunging the city into major upheaval, saying she had heard the people “loud and clear” and would try to rebuild trust.

But some protest organizers and opposition Democrats said Lam remained tone-deaf to public demands, namely that she state categorically a retraction of the bill, step down immediately and pledge not to prosecute any protesters on rioting charges.

“Carrie Lam is continuing to lie,” said Jimmy Sham, the convener of the Civil Human Rights Front. “We hope the people of Hong Kong can unite with us … to keep working hard to withdraw the evil law,” he told reporters.

Alvin Yeung, a Democratic lawmaker, said Lam had failed again to lower the political temperature in the city of seven million.

“Hong Kong will not accept this,” he said.

Lam’s climb-down, with the approval of China’s Communist Party leaders, was the biggest policy reversal since 1997 and presented a new challenge for Chinese President Xi Jinping who has ruled with an iron fist since taking power in 2012.

Since the proposed amendments to the Fugitives Offenders’ Ordinance were first put to the legislature in February, Lam has repeatedly rebuffed concerns voiced in many quarters, including business groups, lawyers, judges, and foreign governments against the bill.

Critics say the bill would undermine Hong Kong’s independent judiciary and rule of law, guaranteed by the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong returned to China, by extending China’s reach into the city and allowing individuals to be arbitrarily sent back to China where they couldn’t be guaranteed a fair trial.

Chinese courts are ultimately controlled by the Communist Party.

Lam issued an apology on Sunday night through a written government statement that many people said lacked sincerity. It failed to pacify many marchers who said they no longer trusted her and doubted her ability to govern.

Lam, a career civil-servant known as “the fighter” for her straight-shooting and tough leadership style, took office two years ago pledging to heal a divided society. Some observers say she is unlikely to step down immediately but any longer-term political ambitions she may have harbored are now all but dead.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Noah Sin, Twinnie Siu, Anne Marie Roantree and Hong Kong newsroom; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Nick Macfie)