Hong Kong reopens after weekend of clashes, protests

By Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s businesses and metro stations reopened as usual on Monday after a chaotic Sunday when police fired water cannon, tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters who blocked roads and threw petrol bombs outside government headquarters.

On Sunday what began as a mostly peaceful protest earlier in the day spiraled into violence in some of the Chinese territory’s busiest shopping and tourist districts.

Thousands of anti-government protesters, many clad in black masks, caps and shades to obscure their identity, raced through the streets, engaging in cat-and-mouse tactics with police, setting street fires and blocking roads in the heart of Hong Kong where many key business districts are located.

The demonstrations are the latest in nearly four months of sometimes violent protests. Protesters are furious over what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in Hong Kong’s affairs despite promises by Beijing to grant the city wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms denied in mainland China.

Dozens of university students rallied peacefully on Monday afternoon urging authorities to listen to public demands. Dressed in black, some of them donning face masks, students sang “Glory to Hong Kong” a song that has become a rallying cry for more democratic freedoms in the semi-autonomous Chinese hub.

At Baptist University hundreds of students also marched to demand the university’s management offer support to a student reporter arrested on Sunday.

The initial trigger for the protests was a contentious extradition bill, now withdrawn, that would have allowed people to be sent from Hong Kong to mainland China for trial.

The protests have since broadened into other demands including universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into allegations of excessive force by the police.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland – including a much-cherished independent legal system.

89 ARRESTS IN WEEKEND VIOLENCE

Kung Lui, a third-year university student majoring in sociology, said the protests would continue until all five demands were met. “The protests have revealed lots of social problems and proved that democracy and freedom are the core values of Hong Kong people.”

Police on Monday said 89 people were arrested over the weekend after “radical protesters” attacked two police officers on Sunday evening, hurling petrol bombs, bricks, and threatening the safety of the officers.

Nearly 1,500 people have been arrested since the protests started in June.

Authorities moved quickly to douse the fires and police fired volleys of tear gas to disperse them, including in the bustling shopping and tourist district of Causeway Bay.

At least 18 people were injured, three of them seriously, during Sunday’s violence, according to the Hospital Authority.

The protests have weighed on the city’s economy as it faces its first recession in a decade, with tourist arrivals plunging 40 percent in August amid some disruptions at the city’s international airport.

By Sunday evening, the running battles between anti-government protesters and police had evolved into street brawls between rival groups in the districts of Fortress Hill and North Point further east on Hong Kong island. There, men in white T-shirts – believed to be pro-Beijing supporters and some wielding hammers, rods and knives – clashed with anti-government activists.

On a street close to North Point, home to a large pro-Beijing community, a Reuters witness saw one man in a white T-shirt sprawled on the ground with head wounds.

Hong Kong media reported that groups of pro-Beijing supporters had attacked journalists.

Police eventually intervened and sealed off some roads to try to restore order, and they were seen taking away several men and women from an office run by a pro-Beijing association.

Democratic lawmaker Ted Hui was arrested for allegedly obstructing police, according to his Democratic Party’s Facebook page, as he tried to mediate on the streets in North Point.

(Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu; Writing by Farah Master; and James Pomfret; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Mark Heinrich)

Hong Kong protesters pause to mark Sept. 11

By Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong activists called off protests on Wednesday in remembrance of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and denounced a Chinese state newspaper report that they were planning “massive terror” in the Chinese-ruled city.

Hong Kong has been rocked by months of sometimes violent unrest, prompted by anger over planned legislation to allow extraditions to China, but broadening into calls for democracy and for Communist rulers in Beijing to leave the city alone.

“Anti-government fanatics are planning massive terror attacks, including blowing up gas pipes, in Hong Kong on September 11,” the Hong Kong edition of the China Daily said on its Facebook page, alongside a picture of the hijacked airliner attacks on the twin towers in New York.

“The 9/11 terror plot also encourages indiscriminate attacks on non-native speakers of Cantonese and starting mountain fires.”

The post said “leaked information was part of the strategy being schemed by radical protesters in their online chat rooms”.

The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent legal system, triggering the anger over the extradition bill.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has said she will withdraw the bill but many Hong Kong residents fear Beijing is steadily eroding the autonomy of the Asian financial hub.

China denies meddling and has accused the United States, Britain and others of fomenting the unrest.

“We don’t even need to do a fact check to know that this is fake news,” said one protester, Michael, 24, referring to the China Daily post. “The state media doesn’t care about its credibility. Whenever something they claimed to have heard on WhatsApp or friends’ friends, they will spread it right away.”

The protesters called off action on Wednesday.

“In solidarity against terrorism, all forms of protest in Hong Kong will be suspended on Sept. 11, apart from potential singing and chanting,” they said in a statement.

The China Daily report was worrying, said another protester, Karen, 23. “When they try to frame the whole protest with those words, it alarms me,” she said. “They are predicting rather than reporting. I think people calling it off today is a nice move.”

FAMILY FRICTIONS

The chairwoman of the Hong Kong Federation of Women, Pansy Ho, a prominent businesswoman and daughter of Macau casino operator Stanley Ho, said she was worried about violent extremism.

“Children of all ages are indoctrinated with police hatred and anti-establishment beliefs at school and online mobilized to conduct massive school strikes,” she told the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Lam said in a speech on Wednesday that Hong Kong was grappling with significant challenges.

“My fervent hope is that we can bridge our divide by upholding the one country, two systems principle, and the Basic Law, and through the concerted efforts of the government and the people of Hong Kong,” she told business leaders.

The Basic Law is Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd has become the biggest corporate casualty of the unrest after China demanded it suspend staff involved in, or who support, the protests.

Cathay Pacific said on Wednesday inbound traffic to Hong Kong in August fell 38% and outbound traffic 12% compared with a year earlier, and that it did not anticipate September to be any less difficult.

Joshua Wong, one of the prominent leaders of the 2014 “Umbrella” pro-democracy movement which brought key streets in Hong Kong to a standstill for 79 days, said in Berlin that the fight for democracy was an uphill battle.

“I hope one day not only Hong Kong people, but also people in mainland China, can enjoy freedom and democracy,” he said.

The protests spread to the sports field on Tuesday, as many football fans defied Chinese law to boo the national anthem ahead of a soccer World Cup qualifier against Iran.

Several peaceful protests are planned for the next few days, combining with celebrations marking the Mid-Autumn Festival.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Farah Master, Jamie Freed, Cecile Mantovani in Geneva and Michelle Martin in Berlin; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Mark Heinrich & Simon Cameron-Moore)

Hong Kong children form chains of protest as economic worries grow

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

By Jessie Pang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘CRUSHED’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hong Kong police break up new protest with rubber bullets, tear gas

Protesters erect the Lady Liberty Hong Kong statue during the "No White Terror No Chinazi" rally in Chater Garden, Hong Kong, China September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

By Marius Zaharia and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray on Friday to clear protesters outside a subway station on the densely populated Kowloon peninsula, the latest clash in 14 weeks of sometimes violent anti-government demonstrations.

Hundreds of protesters, many of them masked and dressed in black, took cover behind umbrellas and barricades made from street fencing. Some had broken through a metal grill to enter the station where they pulled down signs, broke turnstiles and daubed graffiti on the walls.

Protestors stand behind a burning barricade during a demonstration in Mong Kok district in Hong Kong, China September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Protestors stand behind a burning barricade during a demonstration in Mong Kok district in Hong Kong, China September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

“We’re angry at the police and angry at the government,” said Justin, 23, dressed in black and wearing a hoodie. “Police was very brutal with us at this station. We cannot let them get away with it.”

Protesters had gathered outside Prince Edward station in Mong Kok, one of the world’s most densely populated regions, where police had fired beanbag guns and used pepper spray to clear demonstrators this week.

They withdrew when police fired rubber bullets, but regrouped in smaller pockets to light fires in the street from wooden pallets, cardboard boxes and other debris. Firemen were dousing the flames.

“The police will use appropriate force to conduct a dispersal operation and warn all protesters to stop all illegal acts and leave immediately,” police said in a statement.

There was no immediate official word of arrests or injuries. Both Mong Kok and Prince Edward stations were closed.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced measures this week to try to restore order in the Chinese-ruled city, including the formal withdrawal of a bill that triggered the demonstrations. The law would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, despite the city having an independent judiciary dating back to British colonial rule.

But the demonstrations, which began in June, had long since morphed into a broader call for more democracy and many protesters have pledged to fight on, calling Lam’s concessions too little, too late.

“No China” was daubed over walls along the key north-south artery of Nathan Road.

“The four actions are aimed at putting one step forward in helping Hong Kong to get out of the dilemma,” Lam told reporters during a trip to China’s southern region of Guangxi. “We can’t stop the violence immediately.”

Apart from withdrawing the bill, she announced three other measures to help ease the crisis, including a dialogue with the people.

Medical students hold hands as they form a human chain during a protest against the police brutality, at the Faculty of Medicine in The University of Hong Kong, China, September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Medical students hold hands as they form a human chain during a protest against the police brutality, at the Faculty of Medicine in The University of Hong Kong, China, September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

WEEKEND PLANS FOR THE AIRPORT

Demonstrations have at times paralyzed parts of the city, a major Asian financial hub, amid running street battles between protesters and police who have responded with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons. Violent arrests of protesters, many in metro stations, have drawn international attention.

The crowds were expected to swell into the night, as the city braces for weekend demonstrations aiming to disrupt transport links to the airport.

The airport announced that only passengers with tickets would be allowed to use the Airport Express train service on Saturday, boarding in downtown Hong Kong. The train would not stop en route, on the Kowloon peninsula. Bus services could also be hit, it said.

The measures are aimed at avoiding the chaos of last weekend, when protesters blocked airport approach roads, threw debris on the train track and trashed the MTR subway station in the nearby new town of Tung Chung in running clashes with police.

Global credit rating agency Fitch Ratings on Friday downgraded Hong Kong’s long-term foreign-currency issuer default rating to “AA” from “AA+”.

Fitch said it expects that public discontent is likely to persist despite the concessions to certain protester demands.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue of Hong Kong with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, saying a peaceful solution was needed.

“I stressed that the rights and freedoms for (Hong Kong) citizens have to be granted,” Merkel said.

‘RETURN TO ORDER’

Li told a news conference with Merkel “the Chinese government unswervingly safeguards ‘one country, two systems’ and ‘Hong Kong people govern Hong Kong people'”.

Beijing supported the territory’s government “to end the violence and chaos in accordance with the law, to return to order, which is to safeguard Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability”, Li added.

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

China denies the accusation of meddling and says Hong Kong is its internal affair. It has denounced the protests, warning of the damage to the economy and the possible use of force to quell the unrest.

In addition to calling for a withdrawal of the extradition bill and the release of those arrested for violence, protesters also want an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, retraction of the word “riot” to describe rallies and the right for Hong Kong people to choose their own leaders.

The protests have presented Chinese President Xi Jinping with his greatest popular challenge since he came to power in 2012.

(Additional reporting by Felix Tam, Jessie Pang, Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok, Noah Sin, Kai Pfaffenbach and Joe Brock; Andreas Rinke in Beijing; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Frances Kerry)

Hong Kong leader withdraws extradition bill, but some say too little too late

FILE PHOTO: Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam holds a news conference in Hong Kong, China, September 3, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

By James Pomfret and Clare Jim

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Wednesday withdrew an extradition bill that triggered months of often violent protests so the Chinese-ruled city can move forward from a “highly vulnerable and dangerous” place and find solutions.

Her televised announcement came after Reuters reports on Friday and Monday revealing that Beijing had thwarted an earlier proposal from Lam to withdraw the bill and that she had said privately that she would resign if she could, according to an audio recording obtained by Reuters.

“Lingering violence is damaging the very foundations of our society, especially the rule of law,” a somber Lam said as she sat wearing a navy blue jacket and pink shirt with her hands folded on a desk in front of her.

The withdrawal, a key demand of protesters, came after unrest that drove the former British colony to the edge of anarchy as the government repeatedly refused to back down – igniting pitched battles across the city of seven million, the arrests of more than 1,000 protesters, and leaving a society deeply divided.

Many are furious about perceived police brutality and the number of arrests – 1,183 at the latest count – and want an independent inquiry.

“The government will formally withdraw the bill in order to fully allay public concerns,” Lam said.

“I pledge that the government will seriously follow up the recommendations of the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Council) report. From this month, I and my principal officials will reach out to the community to start a direct dialogue … we must find ways to address the discontent in society and look for solutions.”

The protests began in March but snowballed in June and have since evolved into a push for greater democracy for the city which returned to China in 1997.

The bill would have allowed extraditions to mainland China where courts are controlled by the Communist Party.

It was not immediately clear if killing the bill would help end the unrest. The immediate reaction appeared skeptical and the real test will be how many people take to the streets.

Some lawmakers said the move should have come earlier.

“The damage has been done. The scars and wounds are still bleeding,” said pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo. “She thinks she can use a garden hose to put out a hill fire. That’s not going to be acceptable.”

WINNING OVER THE MODERATES?

In the voice recording obtained by Reuters, Lam said at a meeting last week that her room to find a political solution to the crisis was “very limited”, as authorities in Beijing now viewed the situation as a matter of national security.

Beijing’s apparent endorsement of the withdrawal of the bill comes after the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rule since he took power in 2012.

Others said the move was not enough.

“This won’t appease the protesters,” said Boris Chen, 37, who works in financial services. “In any kind of time, people will find something they can get angry about.”

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Cheung Kwok-kwan said Lam’s announcement was not a compromise to appease those promoting violence, but a bid to win over moderates in the protest camp.

“It was likely speaking to the so-called peaceful, rational, non-violent people who were unsatisfied with the government’s response before,” he said.

One woman, Pearl, 69, said the protests were no longer about the bill.

“Some of those guys may change their minds, maybe, but just a minority,” she said of the protesters. “Some of them just want to create trouble and they will continue to do so.”

“Too little, too late,” said Joshua Wong, a leader of the 2014 pro-democracy protests which were the precursor to the current unrest, on his Facebook page.

The chief executive’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the bill’s withdrawal.

Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index <.HSI> jumped after the report of the bill’s imminent withdrawal, trading up about 4%. The property index also jumped.

Lam had said before that the bill was “dead”, but she did not withdraw it.

The protesters’ other four demands are: the retraction of the word “riot” to describe rallies, the release of all arrested demonstrators, an independent inquiry into the police perceived brutality and the right for Hong Kong people to democratically choose their own leaders.

CHINA’S WARNINGS

Hong Kong returned to China under a “one country, two systems” formula that allows it to keep freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, like the freedom to protest and an independent legal system, hence the anger at the extradition bill and perceived creeping influence by Beijing.

China denies it is meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs but warned again on Tuesday that it would not sit idly by if the unrest threatened Chinese security and sovereignty.

China has regularly denounced the protests and warned about the impact on Hong Kong’s economy.

Cathay Pacific Airways <0293.HK> has been one of the biggest corporate casualties.

China’s aviation regulator demanded it suspend staff from flying over its airspace if they were involved in, or supported, the demonstrations. The airline has laid off at least 20 including pilots and cabin crew.

The airline on Wednesday announced the resignation of chairman John Slosar, following the departure of CEO Rupert Hogg last month.

The unrest has shown no sign of easing.

Riot police fired beanbag guns and used pepper spray – both anti-riot weapons – to clear demonstrators from outside the Mong Kok police station and in Prince Edward metro station, with one man taken out on a stretcher with an oxygen mask over his face, television footage showed.

The police, who have repeatedly denied using excessive force, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Lukas Job, Noah Sin, Donny Kwok, Anne Marie Roantree; Writing by Joe Brock and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Special Report: Hong Kong leader says she would ‘quit’ if she could, fears her ability to resolve crisis now ‘very limited’

FILE PHOTO: Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam holds a news conference in Hong Kong, China, August 20, 2019. REUTERS/Ann Wang/File Photo

By Greg Torode, James Pomfret and Anne Marie Roantree

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said she has caused “unforgivable havoc” by igniting the political crisis engulfing the city and would quit if she had a choice, according to an audio recording of remarks she made last week to a group of businesspeople.

At the closed-door meeting, Lam told the group that she now has “very limited” room to resolve the crisis because the unrest has become a national security and sovereignty issue for China amid rising tensions with the United States.

“If I have a choice,” she said, speaking in English, “the first thing is to quit, having made a deep apology.”

Lam’s dramatic and at times anguished remarks offer the clearest view yet into the thinking of the Chinese leadership as it navigates the unrest in Hong Kong, the biggest political crisis to grip the country since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Hong Kong has been convulsed by sometimes violent protests and mass demonstrations since June, in response to a proposed law by Lam’s administration that would allow people suspected of crimes on the mainland to be extradited to face trial in Chinese courts. The law has been shelved, but Lam has been unable to end the upheaval. Protesters have expanded their demands to include complete withdrawal of the proposal, a concession her administration has so far refused. Large demonstrations wracked the city again over the weekend.

Lam suggested that Beijing had not yet reached a turning point. She said Beijing had not imposed any deadline for ending the crisis ahead of National Day celebrations scheduled for October 1. And she said China had “absolutely no plan” to deploy People’s Liberation Army troops on Hong Kong streets. World leaders have been closely watching whether China will send in the military to quell the protests, as it did a generation ago in the bloody Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing.

Lam noted, however, that she had few options once an issue had been elevated “to a national level,” a reference to the leadership in Beijing, “to a sort of sovereignty and security level, let alone in the midst of this sort of unprecedented tension between the two big economies in the world.”

In such a situation, she added, “the room, the political room for the chief executive who, unfortunately, has to serve two masters by constitution, that is the central people’s government and the people of Hong Kong, that political room for maneuvering is very, very, very limited.”

Three people who attended the meeting confirmed that Lam had made the comments in a talk that lasted about half an hour. A 24-minute recording of her remarks was reviewed by Reuters. The meeting was one of a number of “closed-door sessions” that Lam said she has been doing “with people from all walks of life” in Hong Kong.

Responding to Reuters, a spokesman for Lam said she attended two events last week that included business people, and that both were effectively private. “We are therefore not in a position to comment on what the Chief Executive has said at those events,” the spokesman said.

China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, a high-level agency under China’s cabinet, the State Council, did not respond to questions submitted by Reuters.

China’s State Council Information Office did not immediately respond to questions from Reuters.

‘THE PRICE WOULD BE TOO HUGE’

The Hong Kong protests mark the biggest popular challenge to the rule of Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012. Xi is also grappling with an escalating strategic rivalry with the United States and a slowing economy. Tensions have risen as the world’s two biggest economies are embroiled in a tit-for-tat trade war. Disagreements over Taiwan and over China’s moves to tighten its control in the South China Sea have further frayed relations between Beijing and Washington.

Lam’s remarks are consistent with a Reuters report published on Friday that revealed how leaders in Beijing are effectively calling the shots on handling the crisis in Hong Kong. The Chinese government rejected a recent proposal by Lam to defuse the conflict that included withdrawing the extradition bill altogether, three people with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

Asked about the report, China’s Foreign Ministry said that the central government “supports, respects and understands” Lam’s decision to suspend the bill. The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid published by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, denounced it as “fake.”

As protests escalated, Lam suspended the bill on June 15. Several weeks later, on July 9, she announced that it was “dead.” That failed to mollify the protesters, who expanded their demands to include an inquiry into police violence and democratic reform. Many have also called for an end to what they see as meddling by Beijing in the affairs of Hong Kong.

The tone of Lam’s comments in the recording is at odds with her more steely public visage. At times, she can be heard choking up as she reveals the personal impact of the three-month crisis.

“For a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong is unforgivable,” she said.

Lam told the meeting that the leadership in Beijing was aware of the potential damage to China’s reputation that would arise from sending troops into Hong Kong to quell the protests.

“They know that the price would be too huge to pay,” she said.

“They care about the country’s international profile,” she said. “It has taken China a long time to build up to that sort of international profile and to have some say, not only being a big economy but a responsible big economy, so to forsake all those positive developments is clearly not on their agenda.”

But she said China was “willing to play long” to ride out the unrest, even if it meant economic pain for the city, including a drop in tourism and losing out on capital inflows such as initial public offerings.

‘BIGGEST SADNESS’

Lam also spoke about the importance of the rule of law in Hong Kong and restoring stability to the city of more than seven million, as well as the need to improve efforts to get the government’s message out. At the end, applause can be heard on the recording.

While Lam said that now was not the time for “self-pity,” she spoke about her profound frustration with not being able “to reduce the pressure on my frontline police officers,” or to provide a political solution to “pacify the large number of peaceful protesters who are so angry with the government, with me in particular.”

Her inability “to offer a political situation in order to relieve the tension,” she said, was the source of her “biggest sadness.”

Lam also spoke about the impact the crisis has had on her daily life.

“Nowadays it is extremely difficult for me to go out,” she said. “I have not been on the streets, not in shopping malls, can’t go to a hair salon. I can’t do anything because my whereabouts will be spread around social media.”

If she were to appear in public, she said, “you could expect a big crowd of black T-shirts and black-masked young people waiting for me.” Many of the protesters wear black at demonstrations.

After enjoying relatively high popularity in the initial part of her tenure, Lam is now the least popular of any of the four leaders who have run Hong Kong since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, according to veteran pollster Robert Chung, who runs the Public Opinion Research Institute.

HONG KONG ‘IS NOT DEAD YET’

Lam was chosen as city leader in March 2017, vowing to “unite society” and heal divisions in Hong Kong, which remains by far the freest city under Chinese rule. Under the “one country, two systems” formula agreed with Britain, Hong Kong enjoys an array of personal freedoms that don’t exist in mainland China. One of the most cherished of those freedoms is the city’s British-style system of independent courts and rule of law. The protesters say the extradition law would erode that bulwark of liberty.

According to a biography on the Hong Kong government website, Lam, a devout Catholic, attended St Francis’ Canossian College. Her mother, who took care of seven family members on a daily basis, was her role model and inspiration, the biography said. An election manifesto said Lam came from a “grassroots” family and did her homework on a bunk-bed. After studying sociology at the University of Hong Kong, she went on to a distinguished career as a civil servant in Hong Kong. She was elected city leader in March 2017 by a 1,200-member election committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.

In her early days as leader, Lam pushed through a series of controversial government policies, drawing public criticism in Hong Kong but winning praise from Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

On July 1, 2017, the day she was sworn in, Lam donned a white hard hat as she walked with Xi to inspect the new Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, which physically links Hong Kong to mainland China. Critics say the bridge could further weaken Hong Kong’s autonomy by deepening its physical links with southern China.

The effective expulsion last year of Financial Times editor Victor Mallet, whose visa wasn’t renewed after he hosted an event at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club with the leader of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, also drew condemnation at home and abroad. Lam and her government later came under fire for banning the party and the disqualification of pro-democracy lawmakers.

Xi praised Lam’s leadership during a visit to Beijing in December 2018. “The central government fully endorses the work of Chief Executive Lam” and the Hong Kong government, Xi said, according to a report in the state news agency Xinhua.

Pollster Robert Chung said Lam’s success in pushing through many controversial proposals bolstered her belief she would be able to ram through the extradition bill.

“All these things made her feel so confident, and when we had the first demonstration, she still thought, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll get it through in two days and things will be over,'” Chung said. “But she was totally wrong.”

At the meeting last week, Lam said the extradition bill was her doing and was meant to “plug legal loopholes in Hong Kong’s system.”

“This is not something instructed, coerced by the central government,” she said.

She expressed deep regrets about her push to pass the bill. “This has proven to be very unwise given the circumstances,” she said. “And this huge degree of fear and anxiety amongst people of Hong Kong vis-à-vis the mainland of China, which we were not sensitive enough to feel and grasp.”

She gave her audience a gloomy outlook. The police, she said, would continue to arrest those responsible for “this escalating violence,” a group that the government initially estimated numbered between one thousand and two thousand.

It would be “naïve,” she said, to “paint you a rosy picture, that things will be fine.” She did, however, express hope in the city’s ultimate “resurrection.”

“Hong Kong is not dead yet. Maybe she is very, very sick, but she is not dead yet,” she said.

(Editing by Peter Hirschberg and David Lague.)

Exclusive: Amid crisis, China rejected Hong Kong plan to appease protesters – sources

Protesters carry placards as they gather to condemn alleged sexual harassment of a detained demonstrator at a police station, in Hong Kong, China August 28, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

By James Pomfret and Greg Torode

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Earlier this summer, Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, submitted a report to Beijing that assessed protesters’ five key demands and found that withdrawing a contentious extradition bill could help defuse the mounting political crisis in the territory.

The Chinese central government rejected Lam’s proposal to withdraw the extradition bill and ordered her not to yield to any of the protesters’ other demands at that time, three individuals with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

China’s role in directing how Hong Kong handles the protests has been widely assumed, supported by stern statements in state media about the country’s sovereignty and protesters’ “radical” goals.

Beijing’s rebuff of Lam’s proposal for how to resolve the crisis, detailed for the first time by Reuters, represents concrete evidence of the extent to which China is controlling the Hong Kong government’s response to the unrest.

The Chinese central government has condemned the protests and accused foreign powers of fuelling unrest. The Foreign Ministry has repeatedly warned other nations against interfering in Hong Kong, reiterating that the situation there is an “internal affair.”

Lam’s report on the tumult was made before an Aug. 7 meeting in Shenzhen about the Hong Kong crisis led by senior Chinese officials. The report examined the feasibility of the five demands of the protesters, analyzing how conceding to some of these might quiet things down, the individuals with direct knowledge said.

In addition to the withdrawal of the extradition bill, the other demands analyzed in the report were: an independent inquiry into the protests; fully democratic elections; dropping of the term “riot” in describing protests; and dropping charges against those arrested so far.

The withdrawal of the bill and an independent inquiry were seen to be the most feasible politically, according to a senior government official in the Hong Kong administration, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said the move was envisioned as helping pacify some of the more moderate protesters who have been angered by Lam’s silence.

The extradition bill is one of the key issues that has helped drive the protests, which have drawn millions of people into the streets of Hong Kong. Lam has said the bill is “dead,” but has refused to say explicitly that it has been “withdrawn.”

Beijing told Lam not to withdraw the bill, or to launch an inquiry into the tumult, including allegations of excessive police force, according to the senior government official.

Another of the three individuals, who has close ties with senior officials in Hong Kong and also declined to be identified, confirmed the Hong Kong government had submitted the report.

“They said no” to all five demands, said the source. “The situation is far more complicated than most people realize.”

The third individual, a senior Chinese official, said that the Hong Kong government had submitted the report to the Central Co-ordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, a high-level group led by Politburo Standing Committee member Han Zheng, and that President Xi Jinping was aware of it.

The official confirmed that Beijing had rejected giving in to any of the protesters’ demands and wanted Lam’s administration to take more initiative.

In a statement responding to Reuters, Lam’s office said her government had made efforts to address protesters’ concerns, but did not comment directly on whether it had made such a proposal to Beijing, or received instructions.

Written questions to China’s Foreign Ministry were referred to the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), a high-level bureau under China’s State Council. HKMAO did not respond to a faxed request for comment.

Reuters has not seen the report. The news agency also was unable to establish the precise timing of the rejection.

The two Hong Kong sources said the report was submitted between June 16 – the day after Lam announced the suspension of the extradition bill – and Aug. 7, when the HKMAO and China’s representative Liaison Office in Hong Kong held a forum in nearby Shenzhen attended by nearly 500 pro-establishment figures and businesspeople from Hong Kong.

The question of Beijing’s influence strikes at the heart of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” governance, which promised the city a high degree of autonomy and wide-ranging freedoms that don’t exist in mainland China.

More than two months of protests have embroiled Hong Kong in its most severe crisis since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

What began as a movement to oppose the extradition bill, which would have allowed people to be sent to China for trial in Communist Party controlled courts, has morphed into a broader campaign for greater rights and democracy in a direct challenge to Beijing.

‘HER HANDS ARE TIED’

Ip Kwok-him, a senior pro-Beijing politician who sits on Hong Kong’s elite Executive Council, which advises senior officials, including Lam, told Reuters that “if the central government won’t allow something, you can’t do it.” Ip did not know about the proposal to withdraw the bill.

A senior businessman who attended the Shenzhen meeting and has met with Lam recently said “her hands are tied” and Beijing wouldn’t let her withdraw the bill. The businessman spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.

At the Shenzhen meeting, Zhang Xiaoming, the head of the HKMAO, said in televised public remarks that if the turmoil persisted, “the central government must intervene.”

Since then, there have been signs of Beijing taking a harder line.

For instance, officials have likened some protests to “terrorism,” Chinese paramilitary police have conducted drills near the border, several Hong Kong companies have been pressured to suspend staff supporting the protests, and security personnel have searched the digital devices of some travelers entering China.

On Friday, Joshua Wong, a prominent democracy activist, was arrested, according to his political party, Demosisto.

(Reporting by James Pomfret; Additional reporting by Clare Jim, Farah Master and the Beijing newsroom; Editing by Alex Richardson and Gerry Doyle)

Hong Kong government warns of great danger after weekend of violence

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

By Twinnie Siu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GRAVE CHALLENGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the turmoil is taking a toll.

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

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

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

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

Hong Kong protesters clash with police, angry at lack of prosecutions after subway mob attack

Protesters fire nitrogen extinguishers during a stand off at Yuen Long MTR station, the scene of an attack by suspected triad gang members a month ago, in Yuen Long, New Territories, Hong Kong, China August 21, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By James Pomfret and Greg Torode

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Thousands of jeering Hong Kong residents held a raucous anti-government protest on Wednesday at a suburban subway station that was attacked by a mob last month, angry that nobody has yet been prosecuted for the violence.

Some masked protesters clashed with police in the sub-tropical heat, spraying fire extinguishers from the inside of Yuen Long station as others smeared the floor with cooking oil to stop the police advancing.

Some demonstrators blocked station exits and sealed roads outside the station, aiming green laser beams at the lines of shield-bearing officers. Others threw empty fire extinguishers at police lines from overpasses.

It was the latest in a series of demonstrations, which have sometimes turned violent, since June against a perceived erosion of freedoms in the Chinese-ruled former British colony.

Wednesday’s protest marked the night of July 21, when more than 100 white-shirted men stormed the Yuen Long station hours after protesters had marched through central Hong Kong and defaced China’s Liaison Office – the main symbol of Beijing’s authority.

Using pipes and clubs, the men attacked black-clad protesters returning from Hong Kong island as well as passers-by, journalists and a lawmaker, wounding 45 people.

Democratic Party legislator Lam Cheuk-ting, who was wounded in the attack by suspected triad gangsters, said he believed the protesters wanted a peaceful night on Wednesday but he could not rule out further violence – from gangsters or the police.

“It is impossible to predict… It is deeply disappointing that all these weeks later we still don’t have an independent inquiry into those events,” he told Reuters.

Squads of police were stationed on the station perimeter and some protesters jeered and shone lasers at them. A small crowd of masked young men gathered on a station balcony, swearing and cursing at police vans down a side street.

Anger erupted in June over a now-suspended bill that would allow criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China for trial. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said again on Tuesday the legislation was dead.

The unrest has been fueled by broader worries about the erosion of freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula adopted after Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, including an independent judiciary and the right to protest. Demonstrations have included the storming of the legislature and havoc at the airport.

SHARP REACTION FROM BEIJING

At a speakers’ corner beneath the MTR station on Wednesday, people denounced police violence and their perceived desertion of duty on July 21.

“They just walked away,” one woman said. “What kind of police are these?”

Peter, a 17-year-old student handing out free drinks and masks, said he wanted the night to be peaceful.

“We need to give the frontline fighters a rest from fighting the police, so they can fight again later if we need,” he said.

The protests have prompted sharp reactions from Beijing, which has accused foreign countries, including the United States, of fomenting unrest. China has also sent clear warning that forceful intervention is possible, with paramilitary forces holding drills in neighboring Shenzhen.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated Washington’s calls for China to honor its commitment to “one country, two systems”.

Speaking to CBS program “This Morning” on Tuesday, Pompeo highlighted remarks by President Donald Trump at the weekend warning against a crackdown like Beijing’s suppression of pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Trump said this would make reaching a deal he has been seeking to end a trade war with China “very hard”.

In an editorial on Tuesday, China’s influential state-run tabloid, the Global Times, called Monday’s comments by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence linking the trade talks to the Hong Kong protests “outrageous”.

Likely worsening already strained ties between Beijing and London, a Chinese national working at Britain’s Hong Kong consulate has been detained in China’s border city of Shenzhen for violating the law.

Some Hong Kong companies have been dragged into controversy amid the protests.

Pilots and cabin crew at Cathay Pacific Airways described a “white terror” of political denunciations, sackings and phone searches by Chinese aviation officials.

The Hong Kong Pharmacists’ Union said it was concerned about the spread of toxic chemicals from the tear gas used by police in some of the protests.

“We would suggest the protective measures and decontamination actions to be taken after the release of tear gas in your community and the mass transit system,” it said in a statement.

Police responded by reading out from Wikipedia that tear gas does not harm humans.

(Additional reporting by Felix Tam; Writing by Nick Macfie; Editing by Frances Kerry)

California tightens restrictions on police use of lethal force

FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a sign at a rally to protest the police shooting of Stephon Clark, in Sacramento, California, U.S., March 31, 2018. REUTERS/Bob Strong/File Photo

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – California police officers will be allowed to use lethal force only when “necessary” in response to a threat, instead of the existing standard of “reasonable”, under a new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday.

Under the stricter standards, officers must believe they have no other choice to “defend against an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury to the officer or another person,” an abstract of the law published online says.

The new law, which officials say is one of the most restrictive in the United States, is partly a response to police shootings of unarmed black men. Those include the death of Stephon Clark, 22, who was killed by Sacramento police in March 2018, touching off protests across the state.

Clark, who was black, was standing in his grandmother’s yard, holding a cell phone, when he was shot and killed last year. The two officers were exonerated in March, touching off more protests.

At the signing, Newsom said he hoped California’s new law would become a model for the nation.

“As California goes, so goes the rest of the United States of America,” Newsom said, according to news media. “And we are doing something today that stretches the boundaries of possibility and sends a message to people all across the country – that more can be done.”

Clark’s family attended the signing ceremony at the invitation of the governor. The law goes into effect in January. But not all of them were entirely pleased.

“The bill is watered down, everybody knows that,” Stevante Clark, brother of Stephon Clark, told the Los Angeles Times.

Neither the governor’s office nor Clark’s family members of could be immediately reached by Reuters early on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta; editng by Larry King)