Hong Kong leader offers no new concessions,risking more violence
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam didn’t make any new concessions to protesters after pro-democracy forces won a landslide in local elections, a move that risks leading to further violence after months of unrest.
The comments on Tuesday came during her first weekly briefing since an overwhelming majority of voters delivered a strong rebuke of her administration and its backers in Beijing. About 85% of 452 District Council seats went to pro-democracy candidates, a swing of more than 50 percentage points amid a record turnout.
While Lam acknowledged the vote reflected “unhappiness” and vowed to “seriously reflect on these views,” she continued to advocate a plan she outlined more than two months ago calling for peaceful dialogue with “people from all walks of life.” Protesters have already rejected those suggestions, which also included several reviews of the police and greater societal issues that demonstrators don’t consider fully independent.
“The priority for us now is to properly follow up on actions proposed, including community dialogue,” Lam said at the briefing before a meeting of the city’s Executive Council. “After these five or six months, Hong Kong people have realized very clearly that Hong Kong can no longer tolerate this chaotic situation,” she added. “Everybody wants to go back to their normal life and this requires the concerted efforts of every one of us.”
Stocks slipped following her remarks after rising 1.5% a day earlier, when she said her government “will listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly.” Lam’s comments raised some hopes that she might find a way to resolve the dispute with protesters, who have called for an independent commission of inquiry into the unrest and meaningful elections for the city’s top job.
“The ball is in the government’s court to take a step forward. I hope that the opportunity is seized,” Derek Mitchell, president of the National Democratic Institute, a non-partisan group based in D.C., said of the election results in a speech Tuesday at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong. “If that opportunity is not seized, it leads to a dead end,” he said. “I hope all sides take a breath and maybe we can get to a point where the Hong Kong government takes a step forward and builds trust again.”
Lam’s failure to budge from a September proposal led many to predict more violence is once again right around the corner. It would be “very easy” for Lam to set up an independent inquiry as a starting point for peace, said Joseph Cheng, a retired political science professor and pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong.
“I’m afraid that the radical protesters will start clashes with the police again,” he said. “It’s a hard line. No concessions. No bowing to violence. No bowing to mass movements.”
Chinese officials and state media has barely acknowledged the results, with foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang saying Monday that stopping violence and restoring order “is the paramount task in Hong Kong at the moment.” In an article Tuesday, China Daily said many voters failed to make a “rational decision” and “may end up paying a price for that choice.”
China is taking solace in the fact that pro-establishment candidates still took 40% of the popular vote, meaning that Beijing could still rebound in elections next year for the more powerful Legislative Council, said Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy lawmaker.
“The district council is essentially of a consultative nature and what’s really important is the legislature,” she said. “And so they’re focusing on that, and that’s why they’re not backing down.”
One possible flashpoint is a siege at Hong Kong Polytechnic University that has lasted for more than a week, with university staff on Tuesday searching the campus for any remaining protesters. A large group gathered in the central financial district around noon to support the protesters, shouting “save the students.” Other demonstrators blocked roads in Kowloon Bay.
Lam’s failure to respond to peaceful expressions of will by Hong Kong’s masses has helped fuel the violence over the past six months. It started in early June, when she dismissed enormous crowds that marched to oppose legislation allowing extraditions to China.
Instead, she only withdrew the bill completely after violence escalated. By that time, however, the protesters were demanding much more than its withdrawal, and have since regularly clashed with police, vandalized the city’s public transit network, blocked roads and taken over university campuses.
The relative calm since the election may have given Lam hope that the city as a whole is tiring of the protests. But ignoring the vote is effectively telling Hong Kong that peaceful methods don’t work and “will only add further fuel to the movement,” said Alvin Yeung, a pro-democracy lawmaker.
“That is totally foolish and irresponsible,” he said. “Self denial will not restore peace to Hong Kong.”