Human Rights Watch report blasts China as its chief barred from Hong Kong

UNITED NATIONS/BEIJING (Reuters) – U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a scathing review of the Chinese government, calling on the international community to push back against “the most brutal and pervasive oppression China has seen in decades” in its 2020 annual report.

The organization’s global head, Kenneth Roth, was denied entry on Sunday to Hong Kong where he was expected to launch the report, which covers the global human rights situation but features China prominently.

The report condemns Beijing’s treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region and warns that China’s growing political influence and efforts to censor people abroad pose an “existential threat to the international human rights system.”

“If not challenged, Beijing’s actions portend a dystopian future in which no one is beyond the reach of Chinese censors, and an international human rights system so weakened that it no longer serves as a check on government repression,” Roth said in the report.

China last month announced sanctions on HRW and other U.S. nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) as a countermeasure to the U.S. Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which supports anti-government protests in Hong Kong and threatens China with sanctions for human rights abuses.

Beijing says the NGOs are encouraging violent crime linked to anti-government protests in Hong Kong that have plagued the city for over six months. Roth rejected the accusation.

Chinese state media has also broadly blamed fake news and Western interference for landslide victories against pro-Beijing election candidates in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

On Wednesday U.S. democracy watchdog group Freedom House, which was also hit with sanctions, released a separate report criticizing Beijing’s efforts to influence media overseas and calling on governments to impose penalties on Chinese officials.

Geng Shuang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, told reporters he would not read either report, adding that both organizations “distort the truth” and have no objectivity.

“Currently, China’s human rights’ situation is the best it’s been in history,” said Geng.

The HRW report, released at the United Nations on Tuesday, said Hong Kong police have used “excessive force” and have “increasingly restricted freedom of assembly” there. It criticized Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam for refusing to launch an independent investigation into police abuses.

TRUMP CREDIBILITY

Beijing has previously criticized HRW over its investigations on surveillance technology and re-education camps in Xinjiang. The United Nations estimates roughly 1 million Uighurs have been previously detained in Xinjiang.

Beijing denies any mistreatment of Uighurs or others in Xinjiang, saying it is providing vocational training to help stamp out Islamist extremism and separatism and to teach new skills.

China has always been sensitive to rights allegations, but in the past year it has become increasingly forceful in rebuking criticisms, which have periodically threatened to derail trade negotiations with the United States.

“To avoid criticism of them, the Chinese government is trying with increasing ferocity to use its economic and diplomatic clout to silence critical voices abroad and to undermine global institutions that protect human rights,” Roth told a news conference at the United Nations.

When it came to countering China on human rights, Roth said several important governments have been “missing in action.”

“(U.S. President Donald) Trump has lost credibility because he so often embraces friendly autocrats, rather than defend the human rights standards that they flout,” Roth said.

“The European Union has been diverted by Brexit, it’s been obstructed by nationalist members, it’s been divided over migration and as a result it’s often found it difficult to adopt a strong common voice on human rights,” he said. “Other governments are simply bought off (by China.)”

Chinese diplomat Xing Jisheng addressed reporters at the end of the news conference, saying China totally rejected the HRW report as prejudiced and fabricated.

“Hong Kong is a part of China, so given what you said here, I think it is clear to all why you have been barred such entry,” Xing told Roth.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing, Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jonathan Oatis)

China rattles saber – and offers friendship – days before Taiwan’s elections

By Ben Blanchard

BEIJING (Reuters) – With just days to go before Taiwan’s elections, its giant neighbor is trying a push-and-pull strategy on the island Beijing claims as Chinese territory, rattling its saber while trying to coax electors with outwardly friendlier policies.

Taiwan, which says it is an independent country, has long been wary of Chinese attempts to sway its elections in favor of candidates who may look more kindly upon Beijing.

Fear of China has become a major element in the campaign, boosted not only by the anti-government protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong but also by a speech Chinese President Xi Jinping gave in January outlining China’s “reunification” agenda, including threats of force.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and her team are pressing home a message that people need to “protect” Taiwan from China when they vote in the Jan. 11 presidential and parliamentary election.

On Thursday, Taiwan’s Defence Ministry said China had sailed another carrier group through the Taiwan Strait just weeks after the last mission.

Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu quickly took to Twitter to denounce it.

“There it goes again!” he wrote. “Military threats like this only toughen Taiwan’s determination to defend itself and preserve regional peace and stability.”

A few days before that, retired but influential Chinese General Wang Hongguang outlined at a state-media organized forum in Beijing how China could bring Taiwan to its knees by invading its outlying islands and “terrifying” Taipei into submission.

At the same time, China has rolled out policies promising better treatment for the Taiwanese business community, which has invested billions in China, and on Saturday revised a law to give those promises a firmer legal basis.

China has also encouraged Taiwanese abroad, even in places where Taiwan has its own representative offices, to seek consular help from Chinese embassies.

Taiwan says China has sinister intentions, and it must defend its freedoms.

Taiwan only enjoys democracy now after decades of struggle, Tsai’s running mate, William Lai, told supporters on Saturday.

“How can we go backwards, and become a second Hong Kong or Tibet?” he said.

China has ramped up pressure on Tsai since she won office in 2016, cutting off talks and flying bombers around Taiwan, believing she wants to push for the island’s formal independence.

Tsai says Taiwan is already an independent country: the Republic of China, its official name.

China may have overreached recently, said one senior foreign envoy in Taipei, describing Xi’s January speech as effectively “Xi campaigning for Tsai” because of how badly it was received in Taiwan.

‘WE WOULD WIN’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Beijing doesn’t see it that way.

Jin Canrong, Deputy Dean of the School of International Studies at Beijing’s elite Renmin University and a government adviser, said Xi’s speech marked a shift in policy away from preventing independence to actively promoting “reunification”.

China is confident that it could successfully use force against Taiwan, he added.

“China really does have the military ability, which is the say the armed ability, to resolve the Taiwan issue,” Jin said. “Although we would pay a price, in the end we would win.”

Any invasion would be bloody and difficult, as Taiwan’s military is well-armed, though the island could probably not hold out for long unless U.S. forces came quickly to their aid, military experts have said.

Opposition presidential candidate Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang (KMT) party, which favors close ties with China and who is trailing in the polls, says the best way to deal with China is to talk to Beijing and stop demonizing the Chinese for electoral gain.

Han adviser Su Chi, a former general secretary of Taiwan’s National Security Council, said he believed Xi was actually a “dove among the hawks” when it came to Taiwan and wanted a peaceful solution.

“There are loud voices in the mainland for using force to reunify Taiwan, especially in the People’s Liberation Army. I think he (Xi) doesn’t really want this,” Su said.

But Tsai’s returning to office would not necessarily mean relations with China would continue to worsen, as Beijing may realize it must talk to her, said senior legislator Lo Chih-cheng of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

“If our party or our president continues to be in power, eventually China has to come to terms with the incumbent government. They refuse to talk to the DPP because they believe the KMT had a chance to come back,” he told Reuters at his campaign office in a Taipei suburb.

“After seeing the probable defeat of the KMT, leaders in Beijing may believe that in the foreseeable future the KMT may not come back to power again,” he added. “So it might be reasonable or sensible for them to come to terms with the DPP government.”

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee in Taipei and Gao Liangping in Beijing. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

Hong Kong rings in 2020 with democracy chants instead of harbor fireworks

By Jessie PANG and Mari Saito

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of Hong Kong revelers welcomed in 2020 on neon-lit promenades along the picturesque Victoria Harbour, breaking into pro-democracy chants as the clocks struck midnight after more than half a year of often violent unrest.

Protesters briefly blocked Nathan Road, a key artery leading through Kowloon to the harbor, after forming human chains across the Chinese-ruled city and marching through shopping malls, urging people not to give up the fight for democracy in 2020.

The protesters fled when police came to clear the road of umbrellas, street furniture and debris and a three-meter-tall skeleton of a metal Christmas tree. Several arrests were made.

Authorities had canceled the popular new year fireworks for the first time in a decade, citing security concerns. A “Symphony of Lights” took place instead, involving projections on the city’s tallest skyscrapers after the countdown to midnight.

There were small-scale pyrotechnics on waterfront rooftops, but the grandiose fireworks launched from vessels in the center of the harbor, broadcast around the world every year, were absent.

The carnival atmosphere on the harbor was interrupted as parts of the crowd of thousands watching the show began chanting protest slogans, such as “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times” and “Five demands, not one less.”

The latter refers to the goals of the anti-government movement, which include universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality.

The protesters are angry at what they see as creeping Beijing influence in the city which was guaranteed wide-ranging autonomy when it returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997. Beijing denies interference and blames the West for fomenting the unrest.

“I hope people can continue fighting in 2020,” 28-year-old engineer Eric Wong said.

“We should not forget the people in jail who could not count down to the new year with us.”

On Nathan Road, protesters in a chain stretching for several kilometers raised lit-up smartphones as passing cars and buses honked in support and tourists in party hats and 2020-shaped glasses took pictures. Many protesters held up cards reading “Let’s keep fighting together in 2020.”

The chain later spilled over on to the road, and some protesters built barricades and hid behind umbrellas until police chased them away. A water cannon truck, flanked by an armored jeep, patrolled the road at midnight.

“This year there are no fireworks, but there will probably be tear gas somewhere,” said 25-year-old IT worker Sam. “For us it’s not really New Year’s Eve. We have to resist every day.”

Dozens of people had earlier laid flowers at the Prince Edward metro station, scene of some of the most violent clashes with the police this summer.

The protests began in June in response to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, and have evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement.

The protest movement is supported by 59% of city residents polled in a survey conducted for Reuters by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute. More than a third of respondents said they had attended an anti-government demonstration.

BEST WISHES

In a New Year’s Eve video message, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the unrest had caused sadness, anxiety, disappointment and rage.

“Let’s start 2020 with a new resolution, to restore order and harmony in society. So we can begin again, together,” Lam said.

Chinese President Xi Jinping extended his best wishes to Hong Kong residents in a speech carried by state television.

“Without a harmonious and stable environment, how can there be a home where people can live and work happily?” he said. “We sincerely hope for the best for Hong Kong and Hong Kong compatriots.”

Police, who reject allegations of brutality and say they have shown restraint, have arrested nearly 6,500 people since the protests began escalating in what is the worst political crisis faced by the city in decades.

Protesters have thrown petrol bombs and rocks, with police responding with tear gas, water cannon, pepper spray, rubber bullets and occasional live rounds. There have been several injuries.

On Jan. 1, tens of thousands of people are expected to join a pro-democracy march, starting from a park downtown and ending in the heart of the central financial district.

The previous march organized by the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) drew an estimated 800,000 people in early December.

“January 1, see you in Victoria Park,” people gathered on the waterfront chanted.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Mari Saito, Twinnie Siu, Sarah Wu, Tyrone Siu, Joyce Zhou, Simon Gardner in HONG KONG and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; writing by Marius Zaharia; editing by Mike Collett-White, Philippa Fletcher, Timothy Heritage and Nick Macfie)

World welcomes new year amid wildfires and protests

By Swati Pandey, Jessie PANG and Twinnie Siu

SYDNEY/HONG KONG (Reuters) – The world rang in the new year on Wednesday with spectacular firework displays from Sydney to Tokyo, though celebrations in Australia were overshadowed by deadly wildfires and the festive mood in Hong Kong and India was dampened by protests.

Around a million revellers thronged Sydney harbour and nearby districts to watch more than 100,000 fireworks explode above the city, even as thousands of people along Australia’s eastern seaboard sought refuge from the bushfires on beaches.

Hong Kong cancelled its popular New Year’s Eve fireworks in Victoria Harbour due to security concerns as protesters formed giant human chains and marched through shopping malls, vowing to continue to fight for democracy in 2020.

Thousands of Indians also planned to greet the new year with protests, angered by a citizenship law that they say will discriminate against Muslims and chip away at India’s secular constitution.

Sydney decided to press ahead with its fireworks display despite calls by some members of the public for it to be cancelled in solidarity with fire-hit areas in New South Wales, of which the city is the capital.

Sydney mayor Clover Moore said planning had begun 15 months ago and that the event also gave a boost to the economy.

Some other towns in eastern Australia cancelled their new year celebrations as naval vessels and military helicopters helped firefighters to rescue people fleeing the fires, which have turned swathes of New South Wales into a raging furnace.

The fires have killed at least 11 people since October, two of them overnight into Tuesday, destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) and left many towns and rural areas without electricity or mobile coverage.

Some tourists trapped in Australia’s coastal towns posted images of blood-red, smoke-filled skies on social media. One beachfront photograph showed people lying shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand, some wearing gas masks.

Elsewhere, revellers from Auckland in New Zealand to Pyongyang, capital of isolated North Korea, welcomed the new year with firework displays. In Japan, people took turns to strike Buddhist temple bells, in accordance with tradition.

NOT FIREWORKS BUT TEAR GAS

In Hong Kong, rocked by months of sometimes violent pro-democracy demonstrations, protesters were urged to wear masks at a New Year rally called “Don’t forget 2019 – Persist in 2020”, according to social media posts.

A “Symphony of Lights” was planned instead of the firework display, involving projections on the city’s tallest skyscrapers after a countdown to midnight.

“This year there are no fireworks, but there will probably be tear gas somewhere,” said 25-year-old IT worker Sam. “For us it’s not really New Year’s Eve. We have to resist every day.”

Some 6,000 police were deployed and Chief Executive Carrie Lam appealed for calm and reconciliation in her New Year’s Eve video message.

The protests began in June in response to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party, and have evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement.

In India, protesters angry about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new citizenship law planned demonstrations on Tuesday evening in the capital New Delhi, in the grip of its second coldest winter in more than a century, as well as the financial hub Mumbai and other cities.

(Reporting by bureaux in Sydney, Hong Kong and New Delhi; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Kevin Liffey)

Hong Kong marchers target malls on third day of Christmas protests

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of protesters marched through Hong Kong shopping malls on Thursday, disrupting business in the Asian financial hub for a third day over the festive period and prompting riot police to close off a mall in a tourist district.

The “shopping protests” have targeted malls across the Chinese-ruled city since Christmas Eve, turning violent at times with police firing tear gas to disperse demonstrators in areas filled with shoppers and visitors.

While the turnout on Thursday was smaller than on the previous two days, riot police stepped up patrols at shopping centers on the Kowloon peninsula and in the rural New Territories.

Dozens of police with batons and shields surrounded and sealed off the Langham Place shopping mall in Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui district after black-clad, masked protesters occupied it.

“I think the purpose for us to come out is to… let people realize that so many front-line protesters sacrificed (things) for them. They should not forget and (simply) celebrate Christmas,” said Sandy, a young demonstrator who wore a black mask to hide her identity.

“…We have been fighting for almost seven months now, and the Hong Kong police have done so many bad things.”

The protests began more than six months ago in response to a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party.

They have since evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement, and became more confrontational over the festive season. Earlier in December, after pro-democracy candidates overwhelmingly won district council elections, they had been largely peaceful.

Many protesters have been angered by what they see as the use of unnecessary force by the police, and demanded an independent inquiry into the force’s behavior.

Police, who say they have used only minimum force to control the protests, on Thursday detained several people at a mall in rural Tai Po, north of the city’s financial center, public broadcaster RTHK said.

Demonstrators are also angry at what they perceive as increased meddling by Beijing in freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering, saying it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula put in place at that time, and blames foreign forces for fomenting unrest.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam condemned the protesters in a Facebook post on Wednesday, saying many Hong Kongers and tourists were disappointed their Christmas Eve celebrations had been ruined, while local businesses had also been hit.

On Thursday, some restaurants and stores pulled down their shutters in the malls as protesters, some wearing balaclavas and carrying black flags, marched by.

The government on Thursday criticized “unprecedented violence” by some protesters, but said that protecting freedoms and human rights remained a top priority.

(Reporting by Joyce Zhou and Twinnie Siu; Writing by Farah Master; editing by John Stonestreet)

Hong Kong police fire tear gas to break up Christmas Eve protest chaos

By Clare Jim and Marius Zaharia

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong riot police fired rounds of tear gas at thousands of protesters, many wearing masks and reindeer horns, after scuffles in shopping malls and in a prime tourist district as pro-democracy rallies escalated into Christmas Eve chaos.

Protesters inside the malls threw umbrellas and other objects at police who responded by beating some demonstrators with batons, with one pointing his gun at the crowd, but not firing.

Some demonstrators occupied the main roads and blocked traffic outside the malls and nearby luxury hotels in the Tsim Sha Tsui tourist district of Kowloon.

A man was shown on public broadcaster RTHK as falling from the second floor to the first floor of a mall in the rural Yuen Long district as he tried to evade police. He was conscious as he was taken away by paramedics.

There was a heavy police presence into the night in Tsim Sha Tsui with hundreds of officers standing guard on the roads as thousands of Christmas shoppers and tourists, some wearing Santa hats, looked on. A water canon and several armored police Jeeps were parked nearby.

Dozens of protesters started digging up bricks from the roads and set up barricades, as police said in a statement they would deploy “minimum force to effect dispersal” and arrest “rioters”.

Many families with children had congregated in the area to view the Christmas lights along the promenade, the spectacular backdrop of Hong Kong island on the opposite side of the harbor.

The protests in Chinese-ruled Hong Kong, now in their seventh month, have lost some of the scale and intensity of earlier violent confrontations. A peaceful rally this month still drew 800,000 people, according to organizers, showing strong support for the movement.

Scores of black clad, mask wearing protesters chanted slogans including “Revive Hong Kong, revolution of our time,” and “Hong Kong independence” as they roamed the malls.

“Lots of people are shopping so it’s a good opportunity to spread the message and tell people what we are fighting for.” said Ken, an 18-year-old student.

“We fight for freedom, we fight for our future.”

A bank branch of global banking group HSBC was vandalized in Mong Kok, according to television footage. The bank on Friday became embroiled in a saga involving an official crackdown on a fund-raising platform supporting protesters in need.

HSBC denied any link between a police clampdown on the platform, called Spark Alliance, and the earlier closure of an HSBC bank account tied to the group.

Protesters had nevertheless called for a boycott of the bank at its headquarters in the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district.

Around 100 protesters also trashed a Starbucks inside a mall called Mira Place, breaking the glass counters displaying pastries and spraying graffiti on the walls.

The coffee shop chain has been a common target of protesters after the daughter of the founder of Maxim’s Caterers, which owns the local franchise, condemned the protesters at a U.N. human rights council in Geneva.

Metro operator MTR Corp said it shut two stations, Mong Kok and Tsim Sha Tsui, early on Tuesday night due to protests in the area. Train services were meant to run overnight on Christmas Eve.

The Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized some of the biggest marches involving more than a million people, has applied to stage another march on New Year’s Day.

Police have arrested more than 6,000 people since the protests escalated in June, including a large number during a protracted, violent siege at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in mid-November.

Many Hong Kong residents are angry at what they see as Beijing’s meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering and says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula put in place at that time and has blamed foreign forces for fomenting unrest.

In a video posted on her Facebook page, Chief Executive Carrie Lam wished Hong Kong citizens “a peaceful and safe Merry Christmas”.

Lam has so far refused to grant protesters’ demands which include an independent inquiry into police behavior and the implementation of full universal suffrage.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Marius Zaharia, Twinnie Siu, Mari Saito and James Pomfret; writing by Farah Master; editing by Lincoln Feast and Nick Macfie)

Hong Kong protest tide turns into sea of flames

By James Pomfret

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TOO LITTLE, TOO LATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by James Pomfret; editing by Nick Macfie)

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

By David Lague, James Pomfret and Greg Torode

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE ‘MYSTERY’ OF CARRIE LAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A BILLIONAIRE VANISHES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘THIS WILL DESTROY HONG KONG’

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

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

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

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

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

Poon’s father declined to comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hong Kong protesters seek international support on rights

By Felix Tam

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong protesters rallied outside diplomatic missions on Thursday to urge foreign governments to follow the United States and pass human rights bills to raise pressure on Beijing and support their pro-democracy campaign.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed legislation last month requiring the State Department to certify, at least once a year, that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy from Beijing to justify favorable U.S. trading terms.

About 1,000 people, most of them dressed in black and wearing face masks, marched on a route that took them by the consulates of Australia, Britain, the European Union, the United States, Japan and Canada, to drop off a petition.

British, EU and U.S. diplomats came out to receive it and took photographs with the protesters.

“What happens in Hong Kong is not just a local issue, it is about human rights and democracy. Foreign governments should understand how this city is being suppressed,” said Suki Chan, who participated in the protest.

“We need to continue to seek international attention and let them know this movement is not losing momentum.”

Hong Kong has been rattled for more than six months by anti-government protests amid growing anger over what many see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Beijing has denied such meddling, blaming the unrest on “foreign forces” and saying attempts to interfere in the city are doomed to fail.

The U.S. legislation, which also threatens sanctions for human rights violations, followed similar “citizen diplomacy” petitions in Hong Kong this year and has been cheered by protesters.

Beijing denounced the U.S. legislation and Hong Kong’s government said it sent the wrong signal to the demonstrators and increased economic uncertainty in Hong Kong, a major financial hub.

The marchers’ petition condemned what it called police brutality and urged governments to pass legislation to punish Chinese and Hong Kong officials by denying them visas and freezing their assets.

The police say they have acted with restraint.

Police said separately on Thursday they had arrested four people suspected of money laundering in relation to the protests and had frozen HK$70 million ($9 million) in bank deposits.

Chan Wai Kei, from the police’s financial investigation and narcotics bureau, told reporters the four were part of a group that had asked for donations for arrested and injured protesters but used some of the money for personal investments.

‘LOVE CHINA, LOVE MACAU’

Beijing says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees a high degree of autonomy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has this week visited the neighboring gambling hub of Macau, a former Portuguese colony, which he praised on Thursday, drawing a contrast with the Hong Kong protests.

“Love China, love Macau has become the core value of the whole society,” Xi told local officials.

The Macau government and “all parts of society deeply understand that harmony leads to prosperity, (and the importance of) unity, negotiation, no argument, no internal conflict, resisting external interference.”

On Friday Xi was due to attend ceremonies for the 20th anniversary of Macau’s handover to China, and was expected to announce economic perks as a reward for its stability and loyalty.

At the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong, protesters called for U.S. Congress to pass a “Be Water Act”, legislation championed by Missouri Senator Josh Hawley and named after a protest slogan borrowed from martial arts legend Bruce Lee.

The bill would freeze assets of Chinese nationals and state-owned enterprises believed to have contributed to suppressing freedom of speech in Hong Kong.

Thursday also marked the 35th anniversary of a treaty between China and Britain on Hong Kong’s future, which set the stage for its handover.

British Foreign secretary Dominic Raab urged China in a statement to open dialogue with the protesters and respect the commitments in the treaty.

The Chinese foreign ministry said in 2017 the 1984 joint declaration, signed by then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang, was a historical document that no longer had any practical significance.

Hong Kong’s special status, which helped it grow into a global financial center and avoid U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports, is important to Beijing, which uses the city as its main gateway to global capital.

(Reporting by Felix Tam, Mari Saito, Clare Jim, Donny Kwok; Writing by Marius Zaharia; Editing by Robert Birsel and Frances Kerry)

Hong Kong mall protests flare with leader Lam in Beijing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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