China envoy warns of ‘very bad damage’ if Canada follows U.S. lead on Hong Kong

OTTAWA (Reuters) – China’s new ambassador to Canada on Friday warned Ottawa not to follow the U.S. lead and formally back protesters in Hong Kong, saying such a move would cause “very bad damage” to already poor ties with Beijing.

Canada, which has been locked in a trade and diplomatic dispute with China, has repeatedly expressed concern about the safety of its 300,000 citizens in Hong Kong, hit by five months of mass demonstrations for more democracy and autonomy.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed two bills to back the protesters and send a warning to China about human rights.

“If somebody here really tries to … have this kind of law like that in the United States, it’s very dangerous,” said Chinese envoy Cong Peiwu, speaking in English.

“If anything happens like this it will certainly have a very bad damage on our bilateral relationship and that is not in the interests of Canada,” he told a news conference in the embassy. He formally presented his credentials on Nov 1.

The uncompromising tone of his message indicated that while the ambassador may have changed, China’s approach has not.

Cong repeated Beijing’s demand that Canada immediately release Huawei Technologies Co Ltd Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, who is out on bail after Canadian police detained her on a U.S. arrest warrant last December.

“This incident has led to the severe difficulties the two countries are facing nowadays,” said Cong.

Shortly after Meng’s arrest, China picked up two Canadian citizens on state secret charges, and has since blocked imports of canola seed from Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asked on Wednesday what additional measures Canada would take to protect its citizens in Hong Kong, said “we will continue to call for de-escalation and an end to violence” while urging dialogue.

If Canada wanted to protect its citizens, it should ask “those rioters to stop the violence, otherwise those Canadians living in Hong Kong, how can they be safe?” Cong said.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. House passes Hong Kong rights bills, Trump expected to sign

By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed two bills to back protesters in Hong Kong and send a warning to China about human rights, with President Donald Trump expected to sign them into law, despite delicate trade talks with Beijing.

The House sent the bills to the White House after voting 417 to 1 for the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which the Senate passed unanimously on Tuesday. Strong support had been expected after the House passed a similar bill last month.

The measure, which has angered Beijing, would require the State Department to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for the special U.S. trading consideration that helped it become a world financial center.

It also would provide for sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations in the Chinese-ruled city.

Demonstrators have protested for more than five months in the streets of Hong Kong, amid increasing violence and fears that Beijing will ratchet up its response to stop the civil disobedience.

The protesters are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to Hong Kong when Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio was a main sponsor of the Senate-passed bill, which was co-sponsored by Republican Senator Jim Risch and Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin.

The House passed, by 417 to zero, a second bill, which the Senate also approved unanimously on Tuesday, to ban the export of certain crowd-control munitions to Hong Kong police forces. That measure bans the export of items such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.

President Trump has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign a bill passed by Congress, unless he opts to use his veto.

A person familiar with the matter said the president intended to sign the bills into law, not veto them.

Vetoes would have been difficult to sustain, since the measures passed both the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House with almost no objections.

A two-thirds majority would be required in both the Senate and House to override a veto.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

In Beijing on Wednesday, China condemned the legislation’s passage, and vowed strong countermeasures to safeguard its sovereignty and security.

China’s foreign ministry said this month that China had lodged “stern representations” with the United States about the legislation and urged that it not be passed into law, saying it would not only harm Chinese interests and China-U.S. relations, but the United States’ own interests too.

It said China would “inevitably take vigorous measures to firmly respond, to staunchly safeguard our sovereignty, security and development interests.”

Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting freedoms in Hong Kong when he referred in August to its mass street protests as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.

Trump has since called on China to handle the issue humanely, while warning that if anything bad happened in Hong Kong, it could be bad for talks to end a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

On Thursday, the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily, urged the United States to “rein in the horse at the edge of the precipice” and stop interfering in Hong Kong matters and China’s internal affairs.

“If the U.S. side obstinately clings to its course, the Chinese side will inevitably adopt forceful measures to take resolute revenge, and all consequences will be borne by the United States,” it said in a front-page editorial.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Clarence Fernandez)

U.S. Senate passes HK rights bill backing protesters, angers Beijing

By Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation on Tuesday aimed at protecting human rights in Hong Kong amid a crackdown on a pro-democracy protest movement, drawing condemnation from Beijing.

Following the voice vote, the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act” will go to the House of Representatives, which approved its own version last month. The two chambers will have to work out their differences before any legislation can be sent to President Donald Trump for his consideration.

“The people of Hong Kong see what’s coming – they see the steady effort to erode the autonomy and their freedoms,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio said at the start of the brief Senate debate, accusing Beijing of being behind the “violence and repression” in the Asian financial hub.

The Senate passed a second bill, also unanimously, that would ban the export of certain crowd-control munitions to Hong Kong police forces. It bans the export of items such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.

Under the first Senate bill, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would have to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for special U.S. trading consideration that bolsters its status as a world financial center. It also would provide for sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong.

There was no immediate response from the White House, which has yet to say whether Trump would approve the Hong Kong Human Rights bill. A U.S. official said recently that no decision had been made, but the unanimous Senate vote could make a veto more difficult for the Republican president.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said if the measure got to Trump’s desk there would probably be an intense debate between Trump aides worried it could undermine trade talks with China and those who believe it is time to take a stand against China on human rights and Hong Kong’s status.

In Beijing on Wednesday, China condemned the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, and vowed strong counter-measures to safeguard its sovereignty and security.

“This act neglects facts and truth, applies double standards and blatantly interferes in Hong Kong affairs and China’s other internal affairs,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement.

“It is in serious violation of international law and basic norms governing international relations. China condemns and firmly opposes it.”

The United States must immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China’s other internal affairs, or “the negative consequences will boomerang on itself”, Geng added.

Pompeo said on Monday the United States was gravely concerned about Hong Kong’s deepening unrest and violence, urging the city’s government to tackle public concerns and China to honor the promises it made to maintain liberties after taking back the territory from British rule in 1997.

Pompeo addressed the issue again on Tuesday before leaving the United States for a NATO meeting in Brussels.

“We continue to urge everyone to do this peacefully,” he told reporters. “There is a political resolution of this that is achievable, we hope that’ll be the path forward.”

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to Hong Kong when Britain handed it back to China.

Senate aides said they expected the legislation eventually would move forward as an amendment to a massive defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, expected to pass Congress later this year.

Demonstrators in Hong Kong have been protesting in the streets amid increasing violence and fears that Beijing will ratchet up its response to stop the civil disobedience.

Following passage of the bill, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said, “We have sent a message to President Xi (Jinping): Your suppression of freedom, whether in Hong Kong, in northwest China or in anywhere else, will not stand.

“You cannot be a great leader – and you cannot be a great country – when you oppose freedom, when you are so brutal to the people of Hong Kong, young and old, who are protesting.”

Xinjiang, in northwest China, is home to many mostly Muslim Uighurs, large numbers of whom have been detained in what China says are vocational training centers, but which some U.S. officials have called “concentration camps.”

This month the foreign ministry said China had lodged “stern representations” with the United States about the legislation and urged that it not be passed into law.

China would “inevitably take vigorous measures to firmly respond, to staunchly safeguard our sovereignty, security and development interests,” the ministry added.

Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting freedoms in Hong Kong when he referred in August to the mass street protests as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.

Trump has since urged China to handle the issue humanely, warning that anything bad that happened in Hong Kong could hurt talks to end a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

In a post on Twitter on Wednesday, China’s embassy in the United States said, “The democracy and human rights held so dearly by the American people are once again abused by some American politicians to justify violence and disorder.”

It added, “Do they want to side with the rioters? SAD!”

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by David Brunnstrom, Daphne Psaledakis Matt Spetalnick and Humeyra Pamuk, and Ryan Woo and Se Young Lee in Beijing; Editing by Leslie Adler and Clarence Fernandez)

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong protesters plead for U.S. help

By John Ruwitch and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of mostly young pro-democracy activists rallied in Hong Kong on Monday in the first legal protest since the introduction of colonial-era emergency laws and pleaded for help from the United States.

They chanted “Fight for Freedom, Fight for Hong Kong” as they gathered peacefully near central government offices in the Admiralty district of the Chinese-ruled city only hours after police said violent protests had escalated to a “life-threatening level”.

A small bomb exploded and a policeman was stabbed on Sunday night, the latest violence in four months of unrest in which police have responded to petrol bombs and rocks with tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon and sometimes live rounds.

Emergency laws introduced on Oct. 5 banning face masks at rallies and carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail sparked some of the worst violence since the unrest started.

On Monday night, many protesters wore face masks in defiance of the ban.

Speakers urged the United States to pass a Hong Kong human rights act to ensure democracy for the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

“Make Hong Kong Great Again”, read one poster. Some protesters waved the U.S. flag and carried “Uncle Sam” recruitment posters reading “Fight for Freedom, Stand with HK”.

“All of the Hong Kong people feel hopeless and the government hasn’t listened to our voices so we need the USA to help us,” said protester Edward Fong, 28.

The protesters are angry at what they see as Beijing’s tightening grip on the city which was guaranteed 50 years of freedoms under the “one country, two systems” formula under which it returned to China. Beijing rejects the charge and accuses Western countries, especially the United States and Britain, of stirring up trouble.

The unrest poses the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. He warned that any attempt to divide China would be crushed.

“Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones,” Xi said in a meeting on Sunday with leaders in Nepal, where he was visiting, according to China’s state broadcaster CCTV.

‘THEY ARE RIOTERS, CRIMINALS’

In contrast to Monday night’s peaceful protest, rallies descended into chaos on Sunday with running skirmishes between protesters and police in shopping malls and on the streets.

Black-clad activists threw 20 petrol bombs at one police station, while others trashed shops and metro stations.

A crude explosive device, which police said was similar to those used in “terrorist attacks”, was remotely detonated as a police car drove past and officers were clearing roadblocks on Sunday night.

A police officer also had his neck slashed by a protester.

“Violence against police has reached a life-threatening level,” said Deputy Commissioner of Police Tang Ping-keung.

“They are not protesters, they are rioters and criminals. Whatever cause they are fighting for it never justifies such violence.”

Protests have attracted millions of people but have gradually become smaller in recent weeks. Yet violence by hardcore activists has risen, prompting debate over tactics. But they say they remained united.

“Violence is always undesirable, but in the case of Hong Kong, we have no other option,” said regular protester Jackson Chan, 21.

“In June, 2 million took to the street and demonstrated peacefully, yet the government showed a complete disregard to the public opinion… Escalation of violence is inevitable,” Chan said.

On Monday, speakers called on U.S. senators to vote for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, saying it would be their “most powerful weapon”.

The bill supports human rights in Hong Kong with measures under consideration such as annual reviews of its special economic status and sanctions on those who undermine its autonomy. The text will not be finalised until it passes both houses of Congress and is signed by the president.

“We are exhausted and scared, many of us have been detained and tortured… We believe international help will come one day,” said one speaker.

Police have fired thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets at brick- and petrol bomb-throwing protesters and arrested more than 2,300 people since June, many teenagers. Two people have been shot and wounded.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam is due to deliver her annual Policy Address on Wednesday amid pressure to restore confidence in the government.

Hong Kong is facing its first recession in a decade because of the protests, with tourism and retail hardest hit.

(Additional reporting by Anne Marie Roantree and Donny Kwok in Hong Kong; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

U.S. issues travel ban for Cuba’s Castro over human rights accusations, support for Venezuela’s Maduro

Cuban Communist Party chief Raul Castro

By Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Thursday imposed U.S. travel sanctions on Cuban Communist Party chief Raul Castro over his support for Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolas Maduro, and involvement in what it called “gross violations of human rights.”

Taking a direct but largely symbolic swipe at Cuba’s leadership as part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s continuing pressure campaign against Havana, the State Department banned travel to the United States by Castro, Cuba’s former president and younger brother of the late Fidel Castro, as well as family members.

“Castro is responsible for Cuba’s actions to prop up the former Maduro regime in Venezuela through violence, intimidation, and repression,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.

In addition to Castro, the State Department also sanctioned his children, Alejandro Castro Espin, Deborah Castro Espin, Mariela Castro Espin, and Nilsa Castro Espin.

The measures that Pompeo said would block their entry to the United States are likely to have limited impact. Castro last visited in 2015 to address the United Nations General Assembly. His children are also believed to have rarely traveled to the United States. Mariela Castro Espin, a gay rights activist, made stops in New York and San Francisco in 2012.

Pompeo also accused Castro, Cuba’s most powerful figure, of overseeing “a system that arbitrarily detains thousands of Cubans and currently holds more than 100 political prisoners.”

The Cuban government, which strongly rejects such accusations, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

It was the latest in a series of punitive measures that Trump has taken against Washington’s old Cold War foe since taking office in 2017, steadily rolling back the historic opening to Havana under his Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama.

Trump has focused especially on Cuba’s support for Maduro, a longtime ally of Havana. Earlier this year, the United States and dozens of other countries recognized opposition leader Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s rightful president, though Maduro retains the backing of Russia and China as well as the OPEC nation’s military.

“In concert with Maduro’s military and intelligence officers, members of the Cuban security forces have been involved in gross human rights violations and abuses in Venezuela, including torture,” Pompeo said. Cuba has strongly denied the U.S. accusations.

Speaking in New York while attending the U.N. General Assembly, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza scoffed at the U.S. measure against Castro, saying it was an attempt to humiliate him.

“And neither Raul Castro nor his family even want to come to this country! We are forced to come here because the U.N. headquarters is in New York, for now,” said Arreaza, referring to a similar U.S. travel bar on Venezuelan officials and citing a Russian offer to host the United Nations in Sochi.

Last week, the Trump administration ordered the expulsion of two members of Cuba’s delegation to the United Nations.

Washington has made clear that a key objective of its tough approach to Cuba is to force it to abandon Maduro, something Havana has said it will never do. However, Trump has stopped short of breaking off diplomatic relations with Cuba restored by Obama in 2015 after more than five decades of hostility.

Maduro has accused Guaido – who earlier this year assumed an interim presidency after alleging that Maduro had rigged the last election – of trying to mount a U.S.-directed coup.

“Castro is complicit in undermining Venezuela’s democracy and triggering the hemisphere’s largest humanitarian crisis,” Pompeo said.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick; Additional reporting by Lisa Lambert in Washington, Sarah Marsh and Marc Frank in Havana; and Andrew Cawthorne in Caracas; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Lisa Shumaker)

China says most people in Xinjiang camps have ‘returned to society’

A perimeter fence is constructed around what is officially known as a vocational skills education centre in Dabancheng in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, China September 4, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Pete

By Michael Martina

BEIJING (Reuters) – Most people sent to mass detention centers in China’s Xinjiang region have “returned to society”, a senior official from the region said on Tuesday, but he declined to give an estimate of for many have been held in recent years.

U.N. experts and activists say at least 1 million ethnic Uighurs, and members of other largely Muslim minority groups, have been detained in camps in the western region.

China describes the camps as vocational training centers to help stamp out religious extremism and teach new work skills.

Xinjiang vice chairman Alken Tuniaz, asked at a briefing in Beijing for an account of how many people had been put in the facilities, said the number was “dynamic”, and that most had “successfully achieved employment”.

“Currently, most people who have received training have already returned to society, returned home,” Tuniaz said.

A transcript of the briefing emailed to reporters had been edited to read “most have already graduated”, using the word for students who finish a course or graduate from high school.

“Individual countries and news media have ulterior motives, have inverted right and wrong, and slandered and smeared (China)” over the centers, he said.

China has not issued any detailed figures for how many people have been sent to the camps and authorities limit access for independent investigators.

Researchers have made estimates through various methods such as analyzing government procurement documents and satellite imagery of the facilities.

Foreign journalists have reported personal accounts of some former internees and photographed sprawling prison-like facilities surrounded by razor wire and watchtowers.

As Western countries have mounted more strident criticism of the camps, China has not backed down on what it says is a highly successful de-radicalization program in a region that has been plagued with intermittent ethnic violence.

Officials have arranged highly choreographed visits for journalists and diplomats to some of the facilities, where the government says the rights of the “trainees” are fully guaranteed.

It has also suggested that fewer people would be sent through the centers over time.

The government rejects any suggestion that it abuses religious and human rights.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo this month called China’s treatment of Uighurs and other minorities in Xinjiang the “stain of the century”, and the Trump administration has been weighing sanctions against Chinese officials over their policies there.

(Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Saudi Arabia and Russia among 37 states backing China’s Xinjiang policy

FILE PHOTO: People hold signs protesting China's treatment of the Uighur people, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, May 8, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia, Russia and 35 other states have written to the United Nations supporting China’s policies in its western region of Xinjiang, according to a copy of the letter seen by Reuters on Friday, in contrast to strong Western criticism.

China has been accused of detaining a million Muslims and persecuting ethnic Uighurs in Xinjiang, and 22 ambassadors signed a letter to the U.N. Human Rights Council this week criticizing its policies.

But the letter supporting China commended what it called China’s remarkable achievements in the field of human rights.

“Faced with the grave challenge of terrorism and extremism, China has undertaken a series of counter-terrorism and deradicalization measures in Xinjiang, including setting up vocational education and training centers,” the letter said.

The letter said security had returned to Xinjiang and the fundamental human rights of people of all ethnic groups there had been safeguarded. It added there had been no terrorist attack there for three years and people enjoyed a stronger sense of happiness, fulfillment and security.

As well as Saudi Arabia and Russia, the letter was signed by ambassadors from many African countries, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, Belarus, Myanmar, the Philippines, Syria, Pakistan, Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Beijing has denied any human rights violations in the region and Chinese Ambassador Xu Chen, speaking at the close of the Council’s three-week session on Friday, said China highly appreciated the support it had received from the signatories.

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Frances Kerry)

On Venezuelan independence day, Maduro calls for dialogue as Guaido slams ‘dictatorship’

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido, who many nations have recognised as the country's rightful interim ruler, is seen at Venezuela's National Assembly to celebrate the 208th anniversary of Venezuela's independence in Caracas, Venezuela July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Fausto Torrealba

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s bitterly divided political factions held competing commemorations of the country’s independence day on Friday, with President Nicolas Maduro calling for dialogue and opposition leader Juan Guaido decrying alleged human rights violations by Maduro’s “dictatorship.”

Speaking to a gathering of top military officials, Maduro reiterated his support for a negotiation process mediated by Norway between his socialist government and Guaido, the leader of the opposition-held National Assembly who argues Maduro’s 2018 re-election was a fraud.

“There is room for all of us within Venezuela,” Maduro said in a speech in Caracas, before calling for military exercises on July 24 to defend the South American country’s “seas, rivers and borders.”

“We must all give up something in order to reach an agreement,” he said.

Venezuela was plunged into a deep political crisis in January when Guaido invoked the constitution to assume a rival interim presidency, calling Maduro a usurper. He has been recognized as the rightful head of state by dozens of countries, including the United States and most South American neighbors.

But Maduro retains the recognition of Cuba, Russia and China, and remains in control of state functions and the armed forces. He calls Guaido a U.S.-backed puppet seeking to oust him in a coup.

Guaido held a separate independence day event, calling on supporters to march toward the headquarters of the military counterintelligence directorate, or DGCIM, where navy captain Rafael Acosta died last month after opposition leaders and family members said he was tortured in custody.

The march is the first major opposition gathering since a botched Guaido-led military uprising on April 30 and follow-up protests on May 1. The government responded to the failed attempt to oust Maduro with a crackdown on Guaido-aligned lawmakers and military members suspected of involvement.

This week, the United Nations human rights chief, former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, published a report detailing alleged extrajudicial executions, torture, enforced disappearances and other rights violations by Venezuelan security forces in recent years.

“There is no longer any valid euphemism to characterize this regime, other than dictatorship,” Guaido told reporters earlier on Friday. “The systematic violation of human rights, the repression, the torture… it is clearly identified in the (UN)report.”

The Venezuelan government has called the report “selective” and said the UN sources lacked objectivity.

A new round of Norway-mediated talks expected for this week was called off after Acosta’s death. Opposition leaders frequently argue that Maduro’s government seeks to use dialogue to distract from its continued human rights violations.

In an apparent referral to Acosta before Maduro spoke, Commander Remigio Ceballos said the armed forces “regretted the events related to the loss of the retired naval official.” Without naming Acosta, he accused him of conspiring against the Venezuelan state, and said authorities were investigating the circumstances of his death.

(Reporting by Vivian Sequera, Mayela Armas and Luc Cohen, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien)

Hong Kong mothers march in support of anti-extradition students

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

By Noah Sin and Vimvam Tong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hong Kong protests and China’s tightening grip rattle business community

FILE PHOTO: Anti-extradition bill protesters stand behind a barricade during a demonstration near a flag raising ceremony for the anniversary of Hong Kong handover to China in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu/File Photo

By Iris Yuan and Vimvam Tong

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Chaotic scenes of protesters rampaging through Hong Kong’s legislature, trashing furniture and daubing graffiti over walls have sent jitters through the business community, which worries about the impact on the city’s status as a financial hub.

Plumes of smoke billowed among gleaming sky-scrapers early on Tuesday as police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in the heart of the Chinese-ruled city, home to the offices of some of the world’s biggest companies, including global bank HSBC.

Escalating unrest over a controversial extradition bill, which would allow people to be sent to mainland China for trial, grabbed global headlines and clouded the former British colony’s outlook as a finance hub, one of the city’s main pillars of growth.

“I think there will be damage to the reputation of Hong Kong,” said Yumi Yung, 35, who works in fintech. “Some companies may want to leave Hong Kong, or at least not have their headquarters here.”

Around 1,500 multinational companies make Hong Kong their Asian home because of its stability and rule of law. Some of the biggest and most violent protests in decades could change that perception.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, including freedom to protest and an independent judiciary. Monday was the 22nd anniversary.

Beijing denies interfering but, for many Hong Kong residents, the extradition bill is the latest step in a relentless march towards mainland control. Many fear it would put them at the mercy of courts controlled by the Communist Party where human rights are not guaranteed.

“If this bill is not completely scrapped, I will have no choice but to leave my home, Hong Kong,” said Steve, a British lawyer who has worked in Hong Kong for 30 years.

Daniel Yim, a 27-year-old investment banker, said both sides needed to sit down and work things out.

“I think the most effective way to address this will be that the government will … actually tackle this and speak to the people, and I guess, you know, both sides sit together and come up with … the appropriate solution.”

LOSING FREEDOM

Others raised concerns about the future of human rights and the judiciary. Many did not want to use their full names.

“To me, the biggest worry is how Hong Kong is losing its independence bit by bit and is getting dangerously close to a country that doesn’t value human rights and that doesn’t have an independent judicial system,” said Edward, an Australian citizen who has worked in the financial sector for 10 years.

The extradition bill, now suspended but not scrapped, has also spooked some tycoons into moving their personal wealth offshore, according to financial advisers familiar with the details.

An Australian businesswoman who has worked in Hong Kong for 16 years lamented what she saw as Beijing’s tightening grip.

“China is just taking away more and more freedom from Hong Kong,” she said.

“I feel sorry for Hong Kong people, especially Hong Kong people … (here) for more freedom, a better economy, a better life, and now it’s going backwards,” the woman said.

Such concerns came as China’s top newspaper warned on Wednesday that outbreaks of lawlessness could damage Hong Kong’s reputation and seriously hurt its economy.

Calm has returned for now, but the events of recent weeks have set many people thinking.

“If it had escalated, I would consider moving elsewhere,” a 44-year-old hedge fund manager said of the ransacking of the legislature. “I employ four to five people in Hong Kong so yes, I would consider moving.”

(Additional reporting by Sumeet Chatterjee; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Paul Tait and Nick Macfie)