Hong Kong police issue warning amid calls for new demonstrations

By Clare Jim and Noah Sin

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police issued a warning late on Tuesday that they would not tolerate disruptions to public order after activists circulated calls online for fresh demonstrations on Wednesday.

A new national security law proposed last week by Beijing has revived mass protests by demonstrators who say China aims to curb the freedoms enjoyed in Hong Kong, a global financial center with broad autonomy.

Thousands of protesters clashed with police on Sunday in the first big demonstrations since a wave of violent protests last year. Financial markets have been alarmed by the prospect of a dramatic assertion of Chinese control over the city.

Calls were circulated on Tuesday on online forums for a general strike and protests on Wednesday against a national anthem law due for a second reading in the city’s Legislative Council. Such calls do not always result in protests. Police said gatherings must not disrupt traffic and warned of jail terms for those who cause illegal disturbances.

The anthem law would require schools to teach China’s national anthem, organizations to play it and sing it, and anyone who disrespects it to face jail or fines.

Protesters see it as a symbol of China’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s way of life, as manifest in the security law floated last week, which could pave the way for mainland security agencies to open up branches in Hong Kong.

“NO NEED TO WORRY”

Hong Kong authorities insist there is no threat to the city’s autonomy.

“There is no need for us to worry,” the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam told a weekly news conference. “In the last 23 years, whenever people worried about Hong Kong’s freedom of speech and freedom of expression and protest, time and again, Hong Kong has proven that we uphold and preserve those values.”

The United States has branded the security law a “death knell” for the city’s autonomy. Britain, which ruled Hong Kong until returning it to China in 1997, said it was deeply concerned by a law it said would undermine the “one country, two systems” principle under which Hong Kong is governed.

Hong Kong’s Bar Association said the draft had “worrying and problematic features”. According to the draft proposal last week, the legislation aims to tackle secession, subversion and terrorist activities.

On Sunday, police fired tear gas and water cannons to disperse thousands of people who thronged the streets to protest against the proposed legislation. Almost 200 were arrested.

It was the first major protest since pro-democracy demonstrations rocked Hong Kong last year over an unsuccessful plan to introduce an extradition law with China, Hong Kong’s worst crisis since its return to Chinese rule.

More demonstrations are expected in the coming weeks as residents grow more confident about gathering with the coronavirus outbreak under control.

Investors’ concerns were clear in a sell-off on the Hong Kong bourse on Friday, though stocks regained some ground this week.

“Medium-to-long term it will still depend on U.S.-China relations and the political situation in Hong Kong,” said Steven Leung, executive director for institutional sales at brokerage UOB Kay Hian.

Beijing and city officials have toughened their rhetoric recently, describing some of the acts in last year’s protests as terrorism and attempts at secessionism.

While authorities scrapped the extradition bill that sparked that unrest, they dug in their heels against calls for universal suffrage, amnesty for arrested protesters, an independent inquiry into against police handling of the demonstrations and a request not to label the protests riots.

Opinion polls show only a minority of Hong Kong people support independence, which is anathema to Beijing.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Noah Sin and Donny Kwok; Writing by Marius Zaharia and Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel, Peter Graff)

‘Fire magicians’ and medieval weaponry: a Hong Kong university under siege

By Kate O’Donnell-Lamb, Jessie Pang and Tom Lasseter

HONG KONG (Reuters) – For three days last week, anti-government protesters camped out at Hong Kong’s sprawling Polytechnic University prepared for what they feared might be a bloody, even deadly, battle with police.

In the university’s heart, littered with smashed glass and covered in revolutionary graffiti spray-painted on the walls, the black-clad demonstrators in gas masks sawed metal poles into batons and practiced firing rocks from a makeshift catapult. Nearby, others ferried around crates of petrol bombs and wrapped arrows in cloth to set aflame.

On Saturday, the battle began as police moved in to clear the campus and the protesters responded with barrages of rocks and petrol bombs, leaving parts of the university in flames.

After more than five months of protests calling for greater democratic freedoms amid growing anxiety over Chinese influence in Hong Kong, the demonstrations have taken a sudden and dangerous turn, engulfing the city’s universities for the first time.

On five campuses in the Chinese-ruled territory, students armed with medieval-type weaponry turned their universities into rebel fortresses, amid a growing sense by many that sustained peaceful protests were futile. On the other side of the barricades and beyond the flames of burning debris were lines of riot police, armed with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets.

Most of the universities were cleared of demonstrators by the weekend. But the showdown between police and demonstrators at Polytechnic University was grinding on Tuesday, as officers maintained a siege around the campus, where about 100 protesters were still holed up.

During the past week, Reuters journalists have covered the violent confrontations at four Hong Kong universities, including the Polytechnic, as an increasingly militant protest movement suddenly shifted tactics.

‘FIRE MAGICIANS’ AND CATAPULTS

Toward the end of last week, as many as a thousand students occupied the Polytechnic campus. But the numbers dwindled over the next two days, as protesters feared police would lay siege to the campus.

The preparations, though, did not abate. In the cafeteria, tables were laden with supplies – mountains of bottled water, energy drinks, chocolate, torches, toothbrushes and power banks. Outside, a team produced petrol bombs, while the university’s archery team gave impromptu lessons on how to draw a bow.

Teams of “fire magicians”, tasked with lobbing petrol bombs at police on the frontlines, practiced by throwing empty bottles into the university’s drained swimming pool.

The campus is located in a strategic spot next to the Cross Harbour Tunnel, a major artery linking the Kowloon peninsula to Hong Kong island that had been barricaded by protesters. One aim of the Polytechnic occupation was keeping the tunnel shut, protesters said.

Demonstrators who streamed into the university last week encountered what had become a small on-campus village. Hot food was served in the cafeteria, where signs were posted asking media not to take photographs so that weary young men and women could shed their masks to eat and chat. Nearby, others napped on yoga mats spread across a basketball court.

Among the protesters, there was also a growing sense of foreboding about the looming battle with police.

“Once you come out, you know that anything can happen, especially when you are on the frontline, even real bullets,” said Chen, a 21-year-old student and one of the “fire magicians”. Preparing for the worst, Chen, who only provided his surname, said he had recently penned a will.

The campus occupations began on Nov. 11 after police shot an anti-government protester during a demonstration.

Widespread street protests in Hong Kong escalated in June after an eruption of public anger over perceived encroachments on Hong Kong’s autonomy by the Chinese government. The trigger was a bill introduced by Hong Kong’s government that would have allowed the extradition of suspects to the mainland for trial.

The bill has since been withdrawn, but anger has only grown over the government’s perceived indifference to the demands of the protesters, which include an independent investigation into alleged police brutality and an amnesty for arrested protesters.

Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has said she would not be swayed by violence to yield to the demands of protesters. On Tuesday, she said she hoped the university standoff would end soon and that she was shocked that campuses had transformed into “weapons factories”.

In response to questions from Reuters, Lam’s office said: “The Chief Executive has made it clear on various occasions that violence is not a solution to any problem.”

The Hong Kong Police Force did not respond to questions from Reuters.

CHANGED TACTICS

Fears that police were preparing to enter universities and arrest students involved in protests sparked an online appeal to protect campuses, attracting an influx of young protesters. Once on campus, they began preparing weapons and fire bombs, and blocking key adjacent roads that prevented people from getting to work in an effort to engineer a general strike.

And they dug in.

That marked a significant tactical shift for the protesters, whose motto has been “be like water”, a philosophy about being flexible that has underpinned the leaderless wildcat protests. The protesters had utilized Hong Kong’s topography to their advantage, gathering on busy urban streets with plenty of escape routes, making it difficult for the police to arrest more than a few at a time.

The Polytechnic occupiers set up barricades and walls of brick and cement of their own making. But hunkering down meant they would be trapped on campus, with police standing by ready to make arrests on charges carrying heavy prison sentences: rioting, trespassing and theft of public property.

Police began their siege of the Polytechnic on Saturday. By Tuesday, they said that they had “arrested and registered” about 1,100 people in and around the university. Some people tried slipping out past the police cordons in dramatic fashion: through the sewers, or abseiling down a rope hanging from a bridge.

But a hard core of about 100 remained, according to Reuters estimates.

AN APPETITE FOR VIOLENCE

On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s new police chief, Chris Tang, called for support from all citizens to help end the unrest by condemning acts of violence.

Many of the protesters interviewed at university campuses over the past week expressed a sense of futility, saying non-violent opposition was not proving effective.

“We are not destroying things for nothing,” said Yip, a 21-year-old Polytechnic student, standing amid the protest debris on campus. She only gave her surname. “This is the only way we can fight for freedom.”

Others said they were frustrated by the fact that nothing had happened after the “Umbrella Protest” of 2014, when protesters occupied city streets for 11 weeks. The call for greater democracy had been followed by an erosion of freedoms in the city, they said.

Most said their tactics were justified in the face of what they see as brutal force used by the police to quell the protests.

“We are just doing this to protect ourselves,” said Chen, the “fire magician”. “I don’t think we are using violence, we are just policing the police.”

Lee, a 20-year-old nursing student, joined the protests in June, taking to the streets to peacefully demonstrate against the extradition bill.

On Saturday afternoon, she sat on a terrace at the Polytechnic where young men and women hurled petrol bombs at the police on the street below. Unlike the protesters around her, Lee’s face, under a pair of pigtails, was not covered – she’d taken off her mask to sip a juice box.

Asked about the violence, she said of the police that, “they are not following the rules – every time we try to be peaceful, they create new problems.”

“There has to be someone here to defend the things we deserve,” she said.

Later that evening, four young men with metal-tipped arrows rushed out to the same spot, drew back the strings of their bows and sent the missiles hurtling into the darkness toward the police beyond the barricades.

TENSE WAIT AT POLYTECHNIC

The campus occupation movement began at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, located beyond the mountains that loom over Kowloon in the New Territories. On Nov. 11, hundreds of protesters there began constructing barricades on campus and blocked off a nearby highway with bricks and branches.

After a standoff of several days, the police moved in, breaking up barricades and unleashing tear gas. Protesters let loose a hail of petrol bombs, setting fire to a bridge that crossed the highway.

From the Chinese University, the protests spread rapidly to other campuses, including Hong Kong Polytechnic.

Over the course of last week, police managed to mostly clear protesters from the universities – except from the Polytechnic.

For several days, protesters at the Polytechnic waited for the onslaught from police. Then, on Saturday the police finally made a move, blocking streets and firing volleys of tear gas. Next came water cannons that sprayed the university grounds with streams of blue dye that contains an irritant that makes the skin itch. Protesters who’d been soaked stripped to their underwear as their comrades hosed them down.

About 100 demonstrators wielding umbrellas and petrol bombs led a charge against the police lines, backed by the deployment of their makeshift weapons behind them, as local residents gathered on street corners to watch.

One police officer was rushed to hospital after being shot in the leg with an arrow.

On Sunday, as a government helicopter circled the campus, the police adopted a new strategy, sealing off surrounding roads to prevent protesters escaping. Officers warned they were ready to use live bullets if protesters used lethal weapons.

Thirty-eight people were injured in the siege, amid barrages of tear gas, water cannons and petrol bombs. A police van and the university entrance were set ablaze.

By Tuesday, there appeared to be only about 100 protesters left at the university.

One of them, a man who gave his name as Sun, said he wasn’t planning to leave. “There are people out there who have been beaten till their heads were bloodied, it’s not fair to them,” he said. “Those who are staying here, we’ve got to hold out.”

(Reporting by Kate O’Donnell Lamb, Jessie Pang and Tom Lasseter in Hong Kong; additional reporting contributed by Sarah Wu. Editing by Philip McClellan)

Hong Kong faces more protests after night of violence

By Simon Gardner and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of protesters gathered in Hong Kong shopping malls on Monday demanding “freedom” ahead of expected new protests after overnight turmoil in the Asian financial hub brought a warning from the last British governor that people could be killed.

Protesters formed large circles inside multi-level shopping malls and chanted “disband Hong Kong police force”, “fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong” and “I have the right to wear a mask”, as shoppers on a public holiday looked on.

The introduction of colonial-era emergency powers on Friday banning face masks, which protesters use to hide their identity, has sparked some of the most violent clashes in four months of demonstrations.

“Before long, unless we are very, very lucky, people are going to get killed, people are going to be shot,” former British governor Chris Patten told Sky News. “The idea that with public order policing you send police forces out with live ammunition is preposterous.”

Two protesters have been shot, one in the chest and one in the leg. Authorities said the shootings were not intentional but occurred during skirmishes between police and protesters.

Many protesters, police and journalists have been injured in clashes, with police using rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons against demonstrators, some of whom throw bricks and petrol bombs.

A journalist working with Hong Kong’s public broadcaster was recovering in the hospital on Monday after being hit by a petrol bomb on Sunday night.

On Monday, Hong Kong’s metro rail system, which typically carries about 5 million passengers a day, was only partially operating due to what authorities said was “serious vandalism” on Sunday night. Some stations were torched in the protests.

Many shops and Chinese banks were also extensively damaged.

The Sunday night protests, the second night of violence since the imposition of emergency laws, saw scores of protesters arrested and the first warning from Chinese military personnel stationed in the territory.

The protests have plunged the former British colony into its worst political crisis in decades and pose the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

What started as opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill has grown into a pro-democracy movement against what is seen as Beijing’s increasing grip on the city, which protesters say undermines a “one country, two systems” status promised when Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.

China dismisses such accusations, saying foreign governments, including Britain and the United States, have fanned anti-China sentiment.

‘IMPORTANCE OF DIALOGUE’

A 38-year-old woman and an 18-year-old man were charged on Monday for violating the emergency laws. They were also charged with unlawful assembly.

Tens of thousands of protesters, many families with children, marched peacefully through the center of Hong Kong on Sunday, most wearing face masks in defiance of the threat of a maximum one year in prison for doing so.

Police fired tear gas and charged with batons in an attempt to disperse protesters across the city and the rallies deteriorated into running clashes as night fell.

China’s Hong Kong military garrison warned protesters on Sunday they could be arrested for targeting its barracks with lasers – the first direct interaction between the People’s Liberation Army and protesters.

Carrie Lam, the city’s Beijing-backed leader, has said the face mask ban was necessary to end the violence by militant activists. But it has been criticized by human rights groups and the United Nations.

“She would have to be crazy to be making these decisions on her own without being pressured into them. The face mask business, absolutely madness,” said Patten, who handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.

“I fear for the future, unless Carrie Lam actually intervenes and understands the importance of dialogue.”

The city government said in a statement “public safety has been jeopardized and the public order of the whole city is being pushed to the verge of a very dangerous situation”.

Hong Kong is facing its first recession in a decade with the protests damaging tourism and retail sectors.

Protesters are demanding an independent inquiry into police action.

Some protesters said an inquiry, which Patten also called for Lam to allow, was key to ending the protests.

“Hong Kong is part of China, no doubt. We don’t want independence. But we do want our freedoms that we are used to,” said Kong, 57, who works in finance, as he watched hundreds of protesters chanting in a shopping mall on Sunday.

“If they hold an independent inquiry, that would do it. Half of these people would go home. That is the key,” Kong said.

But others are worried the emergency powers are just the beginning of more erosion of their rights.

“The government can use the emergency law to enact other evil laws,” said student Isaac Shum, 19, at one shopping mall protest.

(Additional reporting Simon Gardner, Jessie Pang, Farah Masters; Writing Michael Perry; Editing by Paul Tait and Gerry Doyle)

Hong Kong protesters denounce police ahead of flashpoint weekend

By Jessie Pang and Felix Tam

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of Hong Kong protesters rallied at the harbor side on Friday, chanting slogans accusing the police of brutality and setting the stage for a weekend of demonstrations leading up to the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.

The downtown rally was one of a series of protests that have united activists denouncing Chinese rule, calling for democracy and even for independence from Beijing, often resulting in violent clashes with police in the former British colony.

Activists have targeted police over more than three months with petrol bombs, rocks and laser shone in their eyes, furious at social media footage of random beatings, especially one night against protesters cowering on the floor of a subway train.

Police have responded with teargas, water cannon, rubber bullets and occasional live rounds fired into the air.

The protesters gathered at a park on reclaimed land in front of central government offices on Friday night calling for an investigation into the remote San Uk Ling camp near the Chinese border where they say detained protesters were abused, a claim police deny.

“It’s obvious that there’s a problem of police brutality,” said 19-year-old university student Peter Sin. “They now arrest people randomly and there’s much inhumane treatment during prosecution and detention.”

Police said the camp was no longer being used to hold protesters.

“Its setting and facilities are all in line with police policies and regulations,” they said in a statement. “We will stop using San Uk Ling Holding Centre for holding arrested people in this operation. The reason is to avoid any further public speculation and unnecessary remarks accusing the police.”

One officer told reporters last week that some officers had overstepped the line when dealing with protesters.

“You are talking about a prolonged situation, chaos, violent encounters,” he said. “We have established procedures to deal with allegations of abuse of force. Every day, with every chance we have, we remind our officers not to succumb to emotions.

“We’ve gone through multiple situations where lethal force would have been justified, but our officers chose not to use it.”

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, in the first “open dialogue” session with the people on Thursday, said she would not accede to protesters’ demands for an independent inquiry into police action. She did not explain why.

PROTESTS ON REPUBLIC’S ANNIVERSARY

This weekend, the Asian financial hub marks the fifth anniversary of the start of the “Umbrella” protests, a series of student-led pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 that failed to wrest concessions from Beijing.

One of the most prominent leaders of those protests, the bespectacled Joshua Wong, then just 17, is expected to announce on Saturday that he will run for local district council elections in November, his supporters said.

He is on bail after being charged with inciting and participating in an unauthorized assembly outside police headquarters on June 21.

Thousands of people are expected to rally in the city center on Saturday evening. Protests are also expected on Sunday to mark Global Anti-Totalitarianism Day, with solidarity events planned in cities across the world, including Paris, Berlin, Taipei, New York, Kiev and London.

But the biggest protests are likely to be on Oct. 1, marking the anniversary of the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, with protesters saying they plan to use the holiday to propel calls for greater democracy.

Activists plan a mass rally from Victoria Park in the bustling Causeway Bay district to Chater Garden near government headquarters.

Official festivities for National Day have been scaled back, with authorities keen to avoid embarrassing Beijing at a time when President Xi Jinping is seeking to project an image of national strength and unity.

Pro-Beijing rallies are also planned in the city, raising the prospect of clashes.

The protests were sparked in June by a bill, since withdrawn, that would have allowed the extradition of suspected criminals to mainland China but have since expanded into a broader pro-democracy movement.

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.

China denies meddling. It has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of inciting the unrest.

(Additional reporting by Donny Kwok, Anne Marie Roantree, Twinnie Siu and Marius Zaharia; Writing by Poppy McPherson and Nick Macfie; Editing by Pravin Char)

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.)

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)

Support wavers in Hong Kong for bill allowing extraditions to China after protests

A woman holds placards as she attends a rally in support of demonstrators protesting against proposed extradition bill with China, in Hong Kong, China, June 14, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

By James Pomfret and Farah Master

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Cracks appeared on Friday in the support base for a proposed Hong Kong law to allow extraditions to China, and opponents of the bill said they would stage more demonstrations after hundreds of thousands took to the streets this week.

The extradition bill, which will cover Hong Kong residents and foreign and Chinese nationals living or traveling in the city, has many concerned it may threaten the rule of law that underpins Hong Kong’s international financial status.

Opposition to the bill on Sunday triggered the former British colony’s biggest political demonstration since its return to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” deal. The agreement guarantees Hong Kong’s special autonomy, including freedom of assembly, free press and independent judiciary.

Many accuse China of extensive meddling since then, including obstruction of democratic reforms, interference with elections and of being behind the disappearance of five Hong Kong-based booksellers, starting in 2015, who specialized in works critical of Chinese leaders.

The extradition bill has so spooked some in Hong Kong that some of the territory’s tycoons have started moving personal wealth offshore, according to financial advisers, bankers and lawyers familiar with the details.

On Friday, one of the key advisers to Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, Executive Council member Bernard Chan, told Cable TV he did not think formal discussion of the bill, a precursor to a final vote by the legislature, should continue at present.

“Do we consult, strengthen the bill, or what? Is there still any chance of the bill passing? These are all factors the government must consider,” he said.

“But I definitely say that right now it’s not possible – at a time when there are such intense divisions – to keep discussing this issue. The difficulty is very high.”

Michael Tien, a member of Hong Kong’s legislature and a deputy to China’s national parliament, urged the city government to put the bill on hold.

And 22 former government officials or Legislative Council members, including former security secretary Peter Lai Hing-ling, signed a statement calling on Lam to “yield to public opinion and withdraw the Bill for more thorough deliberation”.

“It is time for Hong Kong to have a cool-down period,” Lai told Reuters. “Let frayed tempers settle before we resume discussion of this controversial issue. Please, no more blood-letting!”

‘VAIN PLOTS’

Beijing-backed Lam has stood by the bill, saying it is necessary to plug loopholes that allow criminals wanted on the mainland to use the city as a haven. She has said Hong Kong courts would safeguard human rights.

Lam has not appeared in public or commented since Wednesday.

China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, has rejected accusations of undermining Hong Kong’s freedoms. Beijing has pointed a finger at foreign governments for supporting the demonstrators.

On Friday Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned a senior U.S. diplomat in Beijing to lodge a protest against recent U.S. comments and actions on Hong Kong and the extradition law. He urged Washington to stop interfering in the city’s affairs immediately.

“We urge the U.S. side to treat the Hong Kong government objectively and fairly and respect its normal legislative process,” the statement cited Le as saying.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Hong Kong matters were an internal affair for China and nobody had a right to interfere.

“Any vain plots to cause chaos in Hong Kong or to damage Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability will be resolutely opposed by the whole people of China including the vast majority of Hong Kong compatriots,” he said. “This does not enjoy popular support and will not succeed.”

The proposed bill has thrown Hong Kong, a city of about 7 million people, into turmoil, starting on Sunday with a march that drew what organizers said was more than a million people.

Tens of thousands demonstrated in the following days. On Wednesday, protesters surrounded the legislature and swarmed on to a major highway, before being forced back by riot police firing volleys of tear gas and rubber bullets.

On Friday, police kept a close watch as the city returned to normal, with most protesters retreating and businesses re-opening. But further demonstrations are planned.

Organizers have urged people to take to the streets on Sunday and protesters have applied for a permit to gather on Monday, when legislators may reconvene to discuss the bill. The Confederation of Trade Unions and Professional Teachers Union called for a citywide strike.

‘STARK PROVOCATION’

A few dozen demonstrators clustered throughout the day on Friday near the legislature, which had been scheduled to debate the bill this week.

“Everyone is planning for a big march on Sunday like last week but no one knows what will happen at night or after,” said a woman surnamed Chan, who was helping at a makeshift first aid and supply station.

In the evening, hundreds of people loosely affiliated with a group that calls itself ‘Hong Kong Mothers’ assembled peacefully to show their opposition to the proposed legislation.

Police have made more than a dozen arrests, some in hospitals and university campuses, while scores were wounded in the clashes.

In the United States, senior congressional lawmakers from both parties introduced legislation to require an annual justification from the U.S. government for the continuation of special business and trade privileges to Hong Kong. China called on the United States not to pass such legislation.

The hawkish Chinese newspaper, the Global Times, lambasted foreign leaders for being hypocrites and said their failure to condemn violent demonstrators was “a stark provocation”.

(Writing by John Ruwitch; Additional reporting by Sijia Jiang, Sumeet Chatterjee, Twinnie Siu, Clare Jim, Greg Torode and Felix Tam and in HONG KONG, David Brunnstrom in WASHINGTON and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Michael Perry, Clarence Fernandez and Nick Macfie)

Venezuela’s Guaido calls for new protests as pressure on Maduro rises

FILE PHOTO: Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed interim president Juan Guaido accompanied by his wife Fabiana Rosales, speaks to the media after a holy Mass at a local church in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 27, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

By Brian Ellsworth

CARACAS (Reuters) – Juan Guaido, the Venezuelan opposition leader and self-proclaimed president, on Monday called for new street demonstrations as pressure intensified on President Nicolas Maduro and the crisis-stricken OPEC nation.

Countries around the world have recognized Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful leader, and the United States vowed to starve Maduro’s administration of oil revenue after he was sworn in Jan. 10 for a second term that was widely dubbed illegitimate.

Maduro says the United States is promoting a coup against him and promised to stay in office, backed by Russia and China, which have bankrolled his government and fought off efforts to have his government disavowed by the United Nations.

Guaido said opposition sympathizers should take to the streets on Wednesday to pass out copies of a pamphlet proposing amnesty that would give some legal protection to members of the military in hopes they will turn against Maduro.

“We must remain united as active agents of change in every corner of the country,” Guaido tweeted on Monday. “We’re doing well, very well, Venezuela!”

On Sunday, Israel and Australia joined countries backing the 35-year-old Guaido, and U.S. President Donald Trump said his government had accepted Venezuelan opposition figure Carlos Alfredo Vecchio as a diplomatic representative to the United States.

Guaido took advantage of a major street demonstration on Jan. 23 to swear himself in as the country’s rightful leader, accusing Maduro of usurping power following a disputed 2018 re-election that countries around the world described as a fraud.

Guaido is asking for help in getting control of the Venezuelan government’s offshore assets.

In recent days, he urged British Prime Minister Theresa May and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney to block Maduro’s government from collecting more than $1 billion in gold held by the Bank of England.

Venezuela’s once-buoyant socialist economic system has imploded from corruption and mismanagement since the collapse of world oil prices in 2014, pushing inflation to almost 2 million percent and driving millions of Venezuelans to neighboring countries.

Maduro says his government is the victim of an “economic war” led by his political adversaries with the help of Washington, which has levied several rounds of sanctions against the country since 2017.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Gaza ceasefire largely holding after day-long flareup

A Palestinian woman passes a building that was destroyed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City July 15, 2018. REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – A ceasefire largely held on Sunday along a tense Gaza-Israel border on Sunday following a day of fierce fighting, but Israel remained on high alert and boosted its air defenses in case hostilities resume.

Israel carried out dozens of air strikes in Gaza on Saturday, killing two teenage boys, and militants fired more than 100 rockets across the border, wounding three people in a southern Israeli town.

The ceasefire, the second between Israel and Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists to be brokered by Egypt this year after a previous day-long flare-up in May, came into force late on Saturday.

“Everyone understands that unless the situation is defused, we will very quickly be back to another confrontation,” U.N. envoy Nickolay Mladenov told reporters at his office in Gaza.

Israel’s military said that, after assessing the situation, it was reinforcing its Iron Dome rocket defense batteries in the greater Tel Aviv area and in the south, where thousands of residents spent much of the Jewish Sabbath in shelters.

It also called up a limited amount of reservists to help out its aerial defense command.

Israel said that in the initial hours of the ceasefire militants had fired two rockets across the border, of which one was intercepted by the Iron Dome system. There were no reports of an Israeli counter-attack in Gaza.

Later, two mortar bombs were fired towards Israel, which responded by striking the launch tube, the military said.

TENSIONS

Weekly clashes at the Israel-Gaza border have kept tensions at a high for months. More than 130 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces during protests at the frontier held every week since March, including a teenager on Friday, Gaza medics said. There have been no Israeli fatalities.

Israel says Hamas has been orchestrating the demonstrations, dubbed The Great March of Return, to provide cover for militants’ cross-border attacks. Hamas denies this.

“Our policy is clear – we hit with great might anyone who harms us,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday. “I hope that they (Hamas) have gotten the message. If not, they will yet.”

Netanyahu also instructed the military to keep targeting Palestinian squads that launch incendiary helium balloons and kites into Israeli fields from northern Gaza. Israel’s military fired twice on such groups, wounding three people.

Israel says it has lost at least 7,000 acres (2,830 hectares) of farmland and forests to a recent surge in fires started by Gaza militants using such balloons and kites rigged with flammable material.

Hamas said border demonstrations, at which Palestinians have been demanding the right to return to land lost when Israel was created in 1948, would continue and that the onus was on Israel to show restraint.

“Let the enemy end its aggression first and then the resistance will stop,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a eulogy for Amir al-Namara, 15, and Loay Kheil, 16, who were killed when a half-constructed high rise they were playing in was hit by an Israeli missile.

The Israeli military said the building had been used by Hamas for urban warfare training.

Twelve others, passers-by and visitors of a nearby public garden, were wounded in the attack, one of dozens of Israeli air strikes on the densely populated enclave on Saturday which damaged residential and office buildings, shattered car windows and caused panic among residents.

“He wasn’t carrying a rocket. He was just an innocent kid,” said Amir’s grandfather Waleed al-Namara at the boy’s wake. “We want the calm to last, and for them to agree on a solution that will benefit the Palestinian people.”

The surge in violence comes as Palestinian hopes for an independent state have dwindled and peace talks remain stalled. Gaza, home to 2 million people, most of whom depend on foreign aid, has been under Israeli economic sanctions for 12 years.

Separately, a Fatah faction militant and his son were killed in a blast in a building in Gaza on Sunday. Police said the man accidentally set off an old Israeli shell he was trying to dismantle.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Gareth Jones)

Americans in UK warned to keep ‘low profile’ during Trump visit

Temporary signs indicate road closures around the U.S. ambassador's residence, where special fences have been erected prior to the U.S. presidential visit at the end of the week, in Regent's Park in London, Britain, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – The U.S. Embassy in London issued an alert on Tuesday to Americans in the British capital, warning them to keep a low profile during President Donald Trump’s visit later this week in case protests against him turn violent.

Trump arrives in Britain on Thursday after a NATO summit and thousands of protesters are expected to join demonstrations during his visit, including plans to fly a blimp over parliament portraying Trump as an orange, snarling baby.

While Britain regards the United States as its closest ally, some Britons see Trump as crude, volatile and opposed to their values on a range of issues. His comments on militant attacks in Britain and his re-tweeting of anti-Muslim videos posted by a leader of a far-right UK party sparked anger.

More than 50,000 people have signed up to demonstrate in London on Friday against his visit although a counter-gathering to welcome him is also planned.

“Numerous demonstrations are being planned for July 12 to 14, 2018, surrounding the visit of the President of the United States to the United Kingdom,” the U.S. embassy said in the alert on its website.

“Several of the events are expected to attract large crowds and there will be road closures in connection with those events.”

Its advice to U.S. citizens was to “keep a low profile” and “exercise caution if unexpectedly in the vicinity of large gatherings that may become violent”.

Trump arrives in Britain on Thursday after the NATO summit in Belgium and will stay overnight at the central London residence of the U.S. ambassador where a high metal security fence was erected outside.

He will hold talks with Prime Minister Theresa May at her 16th-century manor house, meet Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle and attend a black-tie dinner at the home of former World War Two leader Winston Churchill – all outside London.

The U.S. president is also due to travel to Scotland where he owns two golf courses and Scotland’s interim police chief has said more than 5,000 officers would be needed for to cover the trip, including specialist riot and armed officers.

Ahead of his visit, Trump said Britain was currently “in somewhat turmoil” as Prime Minister May grappled with a political crisis after two top ministers quit over her plans for trade ties with the European Union after Britain leaves the bloc next March.

“I have NATO, I have the UK, which is in somewhat turmoil, and I have (Vladimir Putin),” Trump said as he set off on his trip to Europe which includes a meeting with the Russian President in the Finnish capital Helsinki.

“Frankly, Putin may be the easiest of them all. Who would think?”

Relations between Britain and Russia are at a post-Cold War low since May blamed the Kremlin for the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal with a Soviet-era military nerve agent in March.

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge)