Hong Kong residents turned on leader Carrie Lam on Thursday (Sep 26) as she held the first “open dialogue” session with the public in a bid to end more than three months of sometimes-violent protests.
Lam, who has come in for intense criticism and anger for her handling of the widespread public and political unrest in the city, faced some of that emotion Thursday night as a small sample of citizens asked her questions and voiced their frustrations.
“I understand that a lot of people have lost confidence in me,” Lam said in her opening remarks. “No matter where you stand politically, I understand people are anxious, worried and maybe even angry.”
Lam nodded attentively in the town hall-like gathering as speaker-after-speaker accused her administration of ignoring the public and exacerbating a crisis that has no end in sight.
“The whole storm was caused by the extradition Bill initiated by the government,” Lam said at the British colonial-era indoor Queen Elizabeth Stadium. “If we want to walk away from the difficulty and find a way out, the government has to take the biggest responsibility to do so.”
Outside the stadium where the event was being held, a few hundred protesters gathered and shouted slogans, calling on Lam to meet their five demands.
Many saw the community dialogue as a government Public Relations stunt — 20,000 people had applied to attend and only 150 were pre-selected in a lottery.
“This is not a political or a PR show but to seek change. We hope this change will shape a better Hong Kong. While this change might be difficult, I believe we should start now,” Lam said. “The dialogue is aimed so we can change, the aim to change is so Hong Kong, the city we love can become better.”
Protests over the now-shelved extradition Bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to Mainland China for trial have evolved into broader calls for full democracy, in a stark challenge to China’s Communist Party leaders.
Protesters are angry about what they see as creeping Chinese interference in Hong Kong, which returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula intended to guarantee freedoms that are not enjoyed on the mainland.
Of the 130 people that showed up, 70 were selected to ask questions — and many of those vented their anger at Lam, asking her why she hadn’t implemented an independent commission into alleged police brutality, calling on her to release the detained protesters and questioned police response into attacks in Yuen Long and other areas. Some called for her to step down, accusing her of being a puppet for the Chinese central government.
Lam later acknowledged the five protesters demands. “I believe citizens would agree that the public’s demands are actually beyond the ‘five demands,’” said the chief executive, referencing the five principle demands of the movement, which include an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, the release of all detained protesters, and greater democratic freedoms including universal suffrage.
The protests, initially over a now-withdrawn extradition bill to Mainland China, have grown more violent as the weeks have pushed on. Protesters have targeted subway stations and shopping malls, throwing petrol bombs and setting fires. Police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. There have also been several attacks on apparent bystanders during demonstrations and mob street brawls.
The dialogue comes as Hong Kong gears up for its 17th weekend of protests, with marches expected on Saturday — the 5th anniversary of the start of the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
Police and protesters are also facing a major test next week when China marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1.