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Fresh Hong Kong clashes signal difficult path for city's leader Carrie Lam

Pro-establishment lawmakers are growing more anxious about next year's elections for the Legislative Council, a body that the opposition could use to block government initiatives

Natalie Lung & Fion Li | Bloomberg 

Hong Kong protest
A Million march in Hong Kong against China’s extradition law | Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong police clashed with black-clad protesters in a fresh sign of unrest as the city’s China-backed chief executive promised to be more open and inclusive at the turbulent start of her third year in office.

Lam made the remarks in a ceremony to mark the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, her first public speech in more than a week. Earlier, riot police used pepper spray and batons to push back protesters, some wearing helmets and surgical masks, who had attempted to disrupt the annual event at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center in Wan Chai.

A larger protest was expected later in the day when the Civil Human Rights Front -- the group that twice last month turned out historic crowds demanding Lam’s resignation -- leads thousands of her critics through the streets.

“What happened in recent months has caused dilemmas and divides between the government and citizens,” Lam said. “It has made me understand that as a politician, I must remind myself I have to accurately get the pulse of the society. I have learned that even with good intentions, I have to be open and inclusive.”

Shortly after 4 a.m., demonstrators used metal barricades and trash cans to block a road leading to Golden Bauhinia Square in Wan Chai, where Lam was scheduled to speak at a flag-raising ceremony, Radio Television Hong Kong reported. The ceremony was moved inside the convention center, with organizers citing rain.

The MTR Corp. said Monday morning that service to its Island, South Island and Tsuen Wan lines was returning to normal, after earlier suspending stops at the Admiralty and Wan Chai stations at the request of police.

The political turmoil raises new questions about China’s stewardship over Hong Kong, almost halfway through its 50-year promise to preserve capitalist markets and personal freedoms in the former British colony. Lam and her backers in Beijing so far appeared determined to hang on, lest they risk emboldening a more unified opposition bent on stymieing their agenda.

“Long story, short: She won’t yield, she won’t budge. The people won’t yield, won’t budge either,” said Claudia Mo, an opposition lawmaker who’s been a prominent participant in recent rallies. “So this is a standoff, a deadlock. What’s going to happen is more protests. It’s an ongoing fight.”

While the opposition coalesced against Lam’s now-suspended proposal to allow extraditions to China, the latest rallies have begun to emphasize demands for greater democracy and criticism of the Communist Party. The annual July 1 protest march organized by the Civil Human Rights Front, which has drawn as many as 400,000 people in previous years, will test whether activists can keep up the momentum.

Pro-establishment lawmakers are growing more anxious about next year’s elections for the Legislative Council, a body that the opposition could use to block government initiatives.

Starry Lee, chairwoman of the biggest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, has urged Lam to acknowledge that the extradition bill has been withdrawn as protesters are demanding. Felix Chung, who represents the textile and garment industries in the legislature, has called for a Cabinet shake-up to include more diverse views.

“The chief executive has said she would listen sincerely to public views and do more public consultation in the future,” Chung said. “Future policies may be rolled out more slowly, but each decision would be a right one.”

Still, Lam will struggle to rebuild support after repeating the political slide of her unpopular predecessor Leung Chun-ying. Her approval rating plunged 9 percentage points to 23% -- the lowest since she took power, according to a survey released last week by the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme. Support for the former British colony’s government fell to 18%, the lowest since 2003, the poll conducted between June 17-20 showed.

The city’s political factions will face a test of electoral support as early as November, when voters will elect more than 450 representatives on local district councils. A big defeat could increase pressure on China to replace Lam, like the city’s first Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, who resigned in 2005 after similar mass protests.

The price of gridlock for Beijing is more events like rallies last month that illustrated domestic weakness just as Chinese President Xi Jinping was preparing to meet U.S. President Donald Trump at the Group of 20 summit. U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt issued a statement Sunday calling on Hong Kong to uphold the city’s “one country, two systems” framework to ensure it “continues to play a vital role for China, and to continue its role and reputation as a global financial and trading center.”

The Communist Party doesn’t want to risk greater instability in Hong Kong, where an HKU poll last week found that only 27% feel proud about becoming a Chinese citizen -- an all-time low. The result “clearly reflects the impact of this incident to Hong Kong citizens’ ethnic identity recognition and feelings towards the handover of sovereignty,” the polling institute said.

Bonnie Leung, a vice convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, said the government needs to “go to the streets” and understand why the people have come out against it.

“The government is afraid of the people and the people do not respect the government,” she said. “The government has a habit of turning a deaf ear to all these ideas and keep doing what it wants to do.”

First Published: Mon, July 01 2019. 10:32 IST