Embattled Hong Kong leader set for town hall meeting

Yan Zhao, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Sep 26 2019 06:00 PM

Anti-government protesters hold banners as they form a human chain outside the venues of first community dialogue holding by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam in Hong Kong, Wednesday. Jorge Silva, Reuters

Hong Kong's embattled leader will attend a town hall meeting on Thursday evening in a bid to reach out to residents after more than three months of huge, sometimes violent pro-democracy protests.

The public "dialogue session" is the pro-Beijing government's first attempt to sit down with her critics following 16 consecutive weeks of unrest.

Millions have hit the streets, with hardcore activists clashing repeatedly with police, in the biggest challenge to China's rule since the city's handover from Britain in 1997.

"No matter what your stands and opinions are, I believe we have a common goal -- for the interest of Hong Kong," chief executive Carrie Lam said in a Facebook post hours before the dialogue session was due to start.

But it is unclear what, if anything, Lam can offer -- or even whether the more hardcore protesters will let the event go ahead without disruption.

Both Lam and Beijing have ruled out any further concessions to protesters, whose demands include an independent inquiry into police conduct, an amnesty for more than 1,500 people arrested and fully free elections.

On Wednesday, a top Chinese envoy in the city described those demands as "political blackmail", raising concerns that Lam has been given little wiggle room to de-escalate simmering public anger towards her administration and the police.

More than 20,000 people applied to attend Thursday's two-hour meeting, which is being held in an indoor sports stadium.

Authorities said they picked 150 people via lottery with those attending banned form carrying items such as umbrellas, helmets, gas masks and banners.


- Police on standby -
Local media reported that police intended to maintain a low presence at the venue but were keeping 3,000 officers on standby in case of clashes.

Riot police, dressed in green khaki overalls and carrying large plastic riot shields, were filmed carting supplies into the stadium ahead of the event, including boxes of tear gas and pepper spray containers.

Lam, who was selected by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists, currently boasts the lowest approval ratings of any post-handover leader.

Public appearances by her and other senior administration officials in the last few months have frequently resulted in protests.

Last weekend, a cabinet member was besieged in his official car until riot police rescued him.

Hong Kong has seen years of rallies and unrest sparked by fears that Beijing is tightening its grip on the semi-autonomous financial hub.

This summer's unrest was ignited by a now-scrapped proposal to allow extraditions to the authoritarian mainland with huge crowds hitting the streets.

But it has since snowballed into a wider movement pushing for democracy and police accountability after Beijing and Lam took a hard line.

After the prosecution of previous democracy activists in recent years, this summer's movement has been deliberately leaderless and largely organised online.

But that has made it difficult for Lam's administration to know who to reach out to for talks.

On online forums used to organize protests, there were calls to surround the venue with a human chain.

Some comments welcomed the idea of the dialogue, but many more dismissed the meeting as a publicity stunt.

Hong Kong is bracing itself for a fresh round of protests in the coming days with Saturday marking five years since the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement kicked off and Tuesday being the 70th anniversary of communist China's founding.