Thousands of Hong Kong civil servants defy government to join protests

Civil servants attend a rally to support the anti-extradition bill protest in Hong Kong, China August 2, 2019. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

By Felix Tam and Greg Torode

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of civil servants joined in the anti-government protests in Hong Kong on Friday for the first time since they started two months ago, defying a warning from the authorities to remain politically neutral.

Protests against a proposed bill that would allow people to be extradited to stand trial in mainland China have grown increasingly violent, with police accused of excessive use of force and failing to protect protesters from suspected gang attacks.

Chanting encouragement, crowds turned out to support the civil servants at their rally on Friday evening which halted traffic on major roads in the heart of the city’s business district.

“I think the government should respond to the demands, instead of pushing the police to the frontline as a shield,” said Kathy Yip, a 26-year-old government worker.

The rally on Friday came after an open letter penned anonymously and published on Facebook set out a series of demands to the Hong Kong government by a group which said it represented civil servants.

“At present the people of Hong Kong are already on the verge of collapse,” the group wrote in the letter, saying it was “a pity that we have seen extreme oppression.”

The group also listed 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 protests against a now suspended extradition bill have widened to demand greater democracy and the resignation of Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam, and have become one of the gravest populist challenges to Communist Party rulers in Beijing.

On Thursday the government said Hong Kong’s 180,000 civil servants must remain politically neutral as the city braced for another wave of protests over the weekend and a mass strike on Monday across sectors such as transport, schools and corporates.

“At this difficult moment, government colleagues have to stay united and work together to uphold the core values of the civil service,” the government said in a statement.

Protest organizers said over 40,000 people participated in Friday’s rally, while the police put the number at 13,000.

Police said they had arrested eight people, including a leading pro-independence leader, after seizing weapons and suspected bomb-making material in a raid.

Under Chinese rule, Hong Kong has been allowed to retain extensive freedoms, such as an independent judiciary, but many residents see the extradition bill as the latest step in a relentless march toward mainland control. Anson Chan, former chief secretary, said the rally was spontaneous and civil servants enjoyed the right to assembly and it could not be said to impair political neutrality.

Many civil servants, however, were apprehensive about identifying themselves, with many speaking anonymously or asking for only their first name to be used.

MORE PROTESTS PLANNED

Hundreds of medical workers also demonstrated on Friday to protest against the government’s handling of the situation. Large-scale protests are planned for the weekend in Mong Kok, Tseung Kwan O and Western districts.

In a warning to protesters, China’s People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong on Wednesday released a video of “anti-riot” exercises and its top brass warned violence was “absolutely impermissible”.

The PLA has remained in barracks since protests started in April, leaving Hong Kong’s police force to deal with protests.

U.S. President Donald Trump has described protests in Hong Kong as “riots” that China will have to deal with itself..

Police said seven men and a woman, aged between 24 and 31, were arrested on Friday after a raid on a building in the New Territories district of Sha Tin, where police seized weapons and suspected petrol bombs. Making or possessing explosives illegally can carry a sentence of up to 14 years in jail.

The police may arrest more people as the investigations unfold, police officer Li Kwai Wah said, adding, “Recently we are very worried about the escalating violence.”

Andy Chan, a founder of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party that was banned last September, was among those arrested. His arrest prompted about 100 protesters to surround a police station to demand his release, television footage showed.

On Friday night, crowds of protesters surrounded a police station where Chan was being held, drawing out riot police to the street outside.

On Wednesday, 44 people were charged in a Hong Kong court with rioting over a recent protest near Beijing’s main representative office in the heart of the city.

The escalating protests, which have shut government offices, blocked roads and disrupted business, is taking a toll of the city’s economy and scaring off tourists.

Cheng aged 39, who was speaking behind a large black mask, said the recent triad attack on protesters and slow police response had angered him and his civil service peers.

Of the five protester demands, he said the need for an independent inquiry into the actions of the police was vital.

“I hope to stay in the civil service for a long time. But we have to act now.”

(Reporting by James Pomfret, Twinnie Siu, Anne Marie Roantree, Felix Tam, Vimvam Tong and Donny Kwok; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

French interior minister warns of yellow-vest riots on Saturday

FILE PHOTO: Protesters wearing yellow vests attend a demonstration during the Act XXI (the 21st consecutive national protest on Saturday) of the yellow vests movement at the financial district of La Defense near Paris, France, April 6, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) – The French interior minister warned on Friday that violence could flare up on the 23rd Saturday of yellow-vest protests, as authorities banned marches around the fire-gutted Notre-Dame cathedral.

The warning comes after weeks of relative calm, with the marches attracting declining numbers as yellow-vest protesters waited for President Emmanuel Macron’s expected response to their various demands which include lower taxes and more government services.

Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, said domestic intelligence services had informed him of a potential return of rioters intent on wreaking havoc in Paris, Toulouse, Montpellier and Bordeaux, in a repeat of violent protests on March 16.

That day, hooded gangs ransacked stores on Paris’s famed Champs-Elysees avenue, set fire to a bank and forced Macron to cut short a ski trip in the Pyrenees.

“The rioters will be back tomorrow,” Castaner told a press conference. “Their proclaimed aim: a repeat of March 16,” he said. “The rioters have visibly not been moved by what happened at Notre-Dame.”

Castaner said that planned marches that would have come near the medieval church on the central island on the Seine river had been banned, while one march from Saint-Denis, north of Paris, to Jussieu university on the Left Bank, had been authorized.

The catastrophic fire at Notre-Dame cathedral on Monday, one of France’s best-loved monuments, prompted an outpouring of national sorrow and a rush by rich families and corporations to pledge around 1 billion euro ($1.12 billion)for its reconstruction.

That has angered some yellow-vest protesters, who have expressed disgust at the fact their five-month-old movement, which started as an anti-fuel tax protest last year, has not received the same generous donations by France’s elite.

“I’m sorry, and with all due respect to our heritage, but I am just taken aback by these astronomic amounts!” Ingrid Levavasseur, one of the yellow vests’ most recognizable public faces, said on her Facebook page.

“After five months on the streets, this is totally at odds with what we have seen,” she said.

The yellow vest movement poses the biggest challenge so far to Macron’s authority two years into his presidency.

The French leader was due to unveil policies to quell the grassroot movement on Monday, before the blaze at Notre-Dame forced him to cancel the speech. He has yet to set a new date for the announcements.

(Reporting by Danielle Rouquié, writing by Michel Rose; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

As talks with North near, South Korea sees familiar hurdles ahead

FILE PHOTO: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on September 16, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS/File Photo

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – With the specter of two past summits that failed to blunt North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, South Korean officials planning talks next month now face the thorny task of overcoming familiar sticking points with the threat of war looming over any failure.

A South Korean delegation returned home on Tuesday from a first-ever meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, to announce the agreement on a North-South summit next month, the first since 2007.

Seoul officials see the talks as the starting point of President Moon Jae-in’s initiative to denuclearize and build lasting peace on the peninsula, beginning with a freeze in the North’s nuclear program and ending in its complete abolishment.

“While pursuing a fundamental resolution of the standoff, we need to take some initial denuclearization steps, putting a halt to further testing and returning to dialogue,” a senior South Korean government official said on condition of anonymity.

“One could argue we would be deceived by the North as we have been for the last 20 years, but that’s the past – we have different people and different programs now,” the official said.

Moon said on Wednesday he had suggested to the North a rough roadmap progressing from a nuclear freeze to denuclearization, an opposition party chair told reporters after meeting with him.

But Moon said there won’t be “many agreements” to come out of the summit, according to a ruling party lawmaker who took part in the meeting.

Moon also called a 2005 deal of six-nation nuclear talks, under which Pyogyang agreed to give up its nuclear program in return for economic and energy aid and an end to its diplomatic isolation, a “failed model”, the first politician said.

FAMILIAR PATTERN

Former officials in Washington and Tokyo reacted with scepticism to the North’s offer of talks on denuclearization, seeing a familiar pattern of threats followed by talks that fail to win significant concessions.

Chief among the disagreements that have scuttled past efforts to defuse the standoff is North Korea’s requests for security guarantees in return for abandoning its nuclear weapons.

During talks with Moon’s envoys this week, the North expressed its willingness to denuclearize if military threats against it are eliminated, and the security of its regime is guaranteed, without presenting precise conditions.

“(North Korea) has never said what they mean by the guarantee of regime security,” one former senior South Korean official told Reuters.

“That means it’s up to them to decide whether the security is guaranteed or not, and that means they have full control.”

Pyongyang has protested South Korea-U.S. joint military drills as a rehearsal of war.

It has also called the roughly 28,000 American troops stationed in South Korea a potential invasion force that can only be countered by a robust nuclear deterrent.

The North’s official KCNA news agency said on Wednesday the United States is “getting frantic” with the deployment of U.S. troops on the Korean peninsula and their drills to get “familiar with its terrain and arms buildup there”.

Moon’s special advisor Moon Chung-in has raised the possibility for a possible pullout of U.S. forces, saying the president has the right to “let them out”.

Moon declined to comment on the summit, saying: “We will see.”

SECURITY GUARANTEE?

Any discussion of a U.S. troop withdrawal will be fraught, however, as both Seoul and Washington see them as a bulwark against North Korean provocations.

“For the North, a peace treaty and denuclearization means the removal of U.S. forces from not only the peninsula but also Japan and other bases in the Pacific theater,” said Kim Young-mok, a former South Korean diplomat who was involved in the making of a 1994 freeze-for-aid framework deal between Pyongyang and Washington.

“We responded by pledging non-aggression, but I guess it wasn’t enough.”

South Korean officials expect the issue to arise again, but are hoping Pyongyang won’t make impossible demands.

Another senior official acknowledged the difficulty in making progress in any peace talks without addressing the issue of eliminating the military threat to North Korea and guaranteeing the security of its regime.

“The North bring up disarmament talks and the withdrawal of U.S. forces”, the official said.

“If they do, things could get ugly quickly despite the summit, and the South Korea-U.S. alliance would face serious problems. But if the North were to move things forward, they would hopefully present something more realistic.”

Wi Sung-lac, a former South Korean nuclear negotiator, said there needs to be clearer mutual understanding of the definition of denuclearization to facilitate future talks.

“It’s unlikely to see any tangible outcome on the nuclear issue before the summit,” he said.

“The United States and North Korea could sit together at the negotiating table in the meantime, which would provide better optics for the summit but probably not in terms of substance.”

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Additional reporting by Christine Kim; Editing by Josh Smith and Lincoln Feast)