Hong Kong children form chains of protest as economic worries grow

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

By Jessie Pang

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

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

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

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

Three months of protests over a now withdrawn extradition bill have evolved into a broader backlash against the government and greater calls for democracy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘CRUSHED’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hong Kong 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)

Hong Kong government warns of great danger after weekend of violence

An anti-extradition bill protester throws a Molotov cocktail as protesters clash with riot police during a rally to demand democracy and political reforms, at Tsuen Wan, in Hong Kong, China August 25. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Twinnie Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Illegal violence is pushing Hong Kong to the brink of great danger, the city government said on Monday, after a weekend of clashes that included the first gun-shot and the arrest of 86 people, the youngest just 12.

Police fired water cannon and volleys of tear gas in running battles with protesters who threw bricks and petrol bombs on Sunday, the second day of weekend clashes in the Chinese-ruled city.

Six officers drew their pistols and one officer fired a warning shot into the air, police said in a statement, adding that 215 rounds of tear gas and 74 rubber bullets were fired over the two days.

“The escalating illegal and violent acts of radical protesters are not only outrageous, they also push Hong Kong to the verge of a very dangerous situation,” the government said in a statement.

The protests began in mid-June over a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong people to be sent to mainland China for trial.

But the demonstrations have evolved over 12 straight weeks into a broad demand for greater democracy in the financial hub that was promised a high degree of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” formula when it was handed to China by colonial ruler Britain in 1997.

More demonstrations are planned in the days and weeks ahead, including a rally at Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways <0293.HK> headquarters on Wednesday to protest against perceived “white terror”, a term used to describe anonymous acts that create a climate of fear.

Cathay has emerged as the biggest corporate casualty of the protests after China demanded it suspend staff involved in, or who supported, the anti-government demonstrations that have plunged the city into its biggest crisis since 1997.

On Saturday, activists threw petrol bombs and bricks in the gritty industrial district of Kwun Tong, on the east of the Kowloon peninsula. Some protesters cut down “smart” lamp posts equipped with surveillance cameras.

An anti-extradition bill protester carries a barricade for blocking the road during a protest in Hong Kong, China, August 25, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

An anti-extradition bill protester carries a barricade for blocking the road during a protest in Hong Kong, China, August 25, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

GRAVE CHALLENGE

The protests pose the gravest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012, with his government keen to quell the unrest ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct 1.

Protesters again adopted cat-and-mouse tactics on Sunday evening, gathering then quickly dispersing, only to reappear in other places.

They also set up barricades to block some roads, following a largely peaceful rally earlier in the day.

Police said the 86 arrested people were aged 12 to 52, and they were suspected of offences including unlawful assembly, possession of offensive weapons and assaulting police officers.

Twenty-one officers were injured in the violence, they said.

The weekend clashes marked a return to violent unrest after days of calmer demonstrations.

The protests have occasionally caused serious disruption including forcing the closure of the airport.

China has denounced the protests, warned of the damage to Hong Kong’s economy and complained of outside interference.

It has also sent a clear warning that forceful intervention is possible, with paramilitary forces holding drills in Shenzhen, just over the border from Hong Kong in mainland China.The protesters say they are fighting the erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement under which Hong Kong returned to China with the promise of freedoms, not enjoyed on the mainland, for 50 years.

But the turmoil is taking a toll.

The world’s biggest equity deal this year was to unfold in Hong Kong later this month but it has been put on hold. Banks are issuing unprecedented profit warnings, while hotels and restaurants are half-empty.

Several major conferences and trade fairs have been postponed and economists say retail sales could drop by 20%-30% this year.

Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index <.HSI> closed down 1.9% on Monday, in line with regional markets, as the latest salvo in the Sino-U.S. trade war rattled investors.

(Reporting By Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok and Noah Sin; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

Hong Kong families form peaceful human chains ahead of airport protest

Protesters light up their smartphones as they form a human chain during a rally to call for political reforms in Hong Kong's Central district, China, August 23, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

By Jessie Pang and Felix Tam

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of chanting Hong Kong protesters joined hands to form human chains on Friday in a peaceful protest, with almost three months of anti-government demonstrations showing no sign of let-up across the Chinese-ruled territory.

Demonstrators, families young and old, some people masked, some using hand wipes to stay clean, linked hands across different districts as others held up banners thanking overseas nations for supporting “freedom and democracy” in Hong Kong.

Their move echoed one on Aug. 23, 1989, when an estimated 2 million people joined arms across the three Baltic states in a protest against Soviet rule that became known as the “Baltic Way” or “Baltic Chain”.

“I joined the Hong Kong Way because it’s peaceful,” said protester Peter Cheung, 27. “This is the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way. I hope there will be a bigger chance to make an international noise.”

The protest, which included dozens shining lights from the top of Kowloon’s Lion Rock, visible from the main island of Hong Kong, showed the apparent defiance of Hong Kong people after warnings from Communist Party leaders in Beijing and Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam about violence.

Police presence was thin and the protest ended promptly at 9 p.m. (1300 GMT).

But protesters are also planning a “stress test” of the airport this weekend and some, wearing their traditional black garb, were making their way from the nearby suburban town of Tung Chung on Friday night.

The protests, triggered by a now-suspended bill that would have allowed extraditions to China, have plunged the former British colony into its worst crisis since its return to China in 1997 and pose a major challenge for Beijing.

The unrest has widened into calls for greater freedom, fueled by worries about the erosion of rights guaranteed under a “one country, two systems” formula, adopted after the 1997 handover, such as an independent judiciary and the right to protest.

The airport, reached by a gleaming suspension bridge carrying both rail and road traffic, was forced to close last week when protesters, barricading passageways with luggage trolleys, metal barriers and other objects, clashed with police.

China’s Hong Kong affairs office condemned the mayhem as “near-terrorist acts”.

“Go to the airport by different means, including MTR, airport bus, taxi, bike and private car to increase pressure on airport transport,” protest organizers wrote online on Friday.

The Airport Authority published a half-page notice in newspapers urging young people to “love Hong Kong” and said it opposed acts that blocked the airport, adding that it would keep working to maintain smooth operations.

Hong Kong’s high court extended an order restricting protests at the airport. Some activists had apologized for last week’s airport turmoil.

The Canadian consulate said it had suspended travel to mainland China for local staff, just days after a Chinese employee of the city’s British consulate was confirmed to have been detained in China.

Beijing has said that Simon Cheng, the consulate employee, was detained in the border city of Shenzhen neighboring Hong Kong. It has accused Britain and other Western countries of meddling in its affairs in Hong Kong.

Canada’s latest travel advisory on Thursday warned of reports of increased screening of travelers’ digital devices at border crossings between mainland China and Hong Kong.

“HIDDEN AIM”

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Canada’s decision not to allow local staff to visit the mainland was one for Canada, which it respected. If people came to China and followed the law, they would have no problems, he told a daily news briefing.

“But if you have a hidden aim, and are hatching a sinister plot, then I fear in China you need to be in a state of apprehension and extra careful.”

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of China said it had received multiple reports of Chinese border officials detaining journalists and searching their digital devices when traveling between the mainland and Hong Kong.

The protests are taking a toll on Hong Kong’s economy and tourism, with the special administrative region on the cusp of its first recession in a decade.

Transport Secretary Frank Chan said airport passenger volume from Aug. 1 to Aug. 21 was down 11% from the same period last year, with cargo volume down 14%.

Commerce Secretary Edward Yau said visitor arrivals started to fall in mid-July. For Aug. 15 to Aug. 20, arrivals were down 49.6% on the corresponding 2018 period.

“It was the fastest and steepest drop in recent years, and the situation is obviously very worrisome,” he told reporters.

The protests have caused corporate casualties, most dramatically at the Cathay Pacific <0293.HK> airline, amid mounting Chinese scrutiny of the involvement of some of its staff in protests.

Cathay confirmed on Friday that Rebecca Sy, the head of Cathay Dragon’s Airlines Flight Attendants’ Association, was no longer with the company. Her departure follows the shock resignation of Cathay Chief Executive Rupert Hogg last week.

Demonstrators have five demands: withdraw the extradition bill, set up an independent inquiry into the protests and perceived police brutality, stop describing the protests as “rioting”, waive charges against those arrested, and resume political reform.

Beijing has sent a clear warning that forceful intervention is possible, with paramilitary forces holding drills just over the border.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Lukas Job, Donny Kwok, Anne Marie Roantree and Twinnie Siu in Hong Kong, Brenda Goh in Shanghai and Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Alison Williams)

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)

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)

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)

Hong Kong protesters disrupt train services, cause commuter chaos

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

By Vimvam Tong and Felix Tam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rail operator MTR Corp urged people to seek other transport.

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

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

‘INCONVENIENT AND ANNOYING’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Others were more supportive, refusing to blame the protesters.

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

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

Hong Kong retailers forecast sharp drop in sales as protests rock city

FILE PHOTO: Pro-democracy protesters hold umbrellas inside a mall as they face the riot police after a march at Sha Tin District of East New Territories, in Hong Kong, China July 14, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

By Donny Kwok and Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong retailers said on Tuesday they expect sales for July and August to drop by double-digits from a year earlier due to large and sometimes violent protests that have gripped the Chinese-ruled city for more than a month.

On top of that forecast, the Hong Kong Retail Management Association also sharply changed its full-year retail sales forecast to a double-digit fall instead of single-digit growth.

It urged the government to resolve the dispute over a proposed extradition bill peacefully.

Millions have taken to the streets over the past month to protest a bill that would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.

The retail group’s statement came after a relatively peaceful rally descended into chaos late on Sunday when protesters in a shopping mall housing some of the world’s largest luxury brands threw umbrellas and plastic bottles at police who retaliated by firing pepper spray and swinging batons.

The retail industry “is worried that the incident will hit Hong Kong’s international image as a safe city with good food and a shopping paradise,” the association said in a statement.

Last month, PwC revised its Hong Kong full-year retail sales forecast to a 5% drop, from a 3% fall.

PwC also said recent political and social unrest, coupled with a lack of new tourist attractions, might lower mainland tourists’ appetite to visit Hong Kong in the short run.

The Hong Kong Inbound Travel Association estimates that so far this month, the number of organized tours to the city has dropped 20% to 30% from the same period a year earlier.

“The impact has begun to surface and we start to see tours from mainland China and overseas postponing their leisure visits,” association chairman Paul Leung told Reuters. “We hope both sides can resolve the issue in a peaceful manner.”

The value of Hong Kong retail sales slid 1.3% from a year earlier in May, the fourth straight month of decline.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Monday called protesters who clashed with police on Sunday “rioters”, and said she supported the police in upholding the law and seeking perpetrators.

(Additional reporting by Felix Tam; Editing by Richard Borsuk)

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)