HONG KONG (AP) – Scores of protesters chanted slogans outside a stadium in Hong Kong where embattled city leader Carrie Lam held a town hall session on Thursday (Sept 26) aimed at cooling down months of demonstrations for greater democracy in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
The community dialogue with 150 participants, selected randomly from over 20,000 applicants, was the first since massive protests began in June sparked by an extradition Bill that the government has now promised to withdraw.
Protesters have refused to stop demonstrating until other demands including direct elections for the city’s leaders and police accountability are met.
Riot police carried equipment including shields, pepper spray and tear gas canisters into Queen Elizabeth Stadium in the Wan Chai area. Authorities also set up X-ray machines and metal detectors to ensure participants did not bring banned items inside such as umbrellas, helmets and gas masks – gear used by protesters.
The security measures came as hundreds of students and others formed human chains at roads near the stadium, chanting slogans expressing their demands. Some protesters later marched outside the stadium and continued chanting slogans as the dialogue began.
In her opening remarks, Mrs Lam expressed hope that the two-hour dialogue would help bring change for a better Hong Kong. The session, broadcast live, was the first in a series of dialogues toward reconciliation, she said.
Critics called the dialogue a political show to appease protesters before major rallies planned this weekend ahead of China’s National Day celebrations on Oct 1.
“This is not just a PR show but aimed to bring change” so Hong Kong can be a better country, Mrs Lam said. She said the dialogue was to identify deep-seated economic and social problems that contributed to the protests, now entering a fourth month.
The protests have turned increasingly violent in recent weeks as demonstrators lobbed gasoline bombs at government buildings, vandalised public facilities and set street fires, prompting police to respond with tear gas and water cannons. More than 1,500 people, including children as young as 12, have been detained.
The extradition Bill, which would have allowed some criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial, is viewed by many as an example of growing Chinese interference in the city’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework introduced when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Many protesters say the dialogue is meaningless if the government refuses to accept their remaining demands.
“To Hong Kong people, it’s a joke,” said Ms Bonnie Leung of the Civil Human Rights Front, which has organised several massive rallies. “If she really wants to communicate with Hong Kong people, all she has to do is to open her door, we are right outside.”
The Front has received police approval for a rally on Saturday and has applied for another major march on Oct 1. Police banned the last two rallies planned by the group, but protesters turned up anyway and the peaceful gatherings later degenerated into chaos.
China has accused the US and other foreign powers of being behind the riots.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Thursday warned the US Congress to halt work on a Bill that proposes economic sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials found to have suppressed democracy in Hong Kong.
The foreign affairs committees of the House of Representatives and the Senate approved the Hong Kong Human Rights Acts on Wednesday (Sept 25), setting the stage for votes in both chambers.
Mr Geng said at a daily briefing in Beijing that the move was an endorsement of Hong Kong’s radical forces, and accused Washington of seeking to “mess up Hong Kong and contain China’s development”.
“We will forcefully fight back against any US attempt to harm China’s interests,” he said.
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