Hong Kong Leader Carrie Lam said on Thursday she had to hold talks with the people no matter how difficult they may be, as she opened the first “open dialogue” session with the public in a bid to end nearly four months of sometimes violent protests.
The biggest responsibility for resolving the crisis in the Chinese-ruled city lay with the government, she said, as pro-democracy protesters chanted slogans outside.
“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,” Ms. Lam said at the colonial-era indoor Queen Elizabeth stadium.
Outside, about 100 protesters chanted: “Hong Kong people, add oil,” a slogan meaning “keep your strength up.”
Beijing-backed Ms. Lam was holding talks with 150 members of the community, with speakers each given around three minutes to express their views.
Security was tight around the venue in the commercial and nightlife district of Wan Chai, where some schools and businesses closed early ahead of the meeting scheduled for 1100 Greenwich Mean Time.
“Deep wounds have been opened in our society. These will take time to heal,” Ms. Lam said in an opinion piece in The New York Times. “But it remains this government’s hope that conversation will triumph over conflict and that through its actions, calm can be restored and trust can be rebuilt within the community.”
Resident Poon Yau-lok, 62, was skeptical that the talks would make any difference.
“They wouldn’t listen when 200,000 people marched on the street. Why would they listen to just 150?” she told Reuters.
Protests over a now-shelved extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial have evolved into broader calls for greater democracy.
RAIL SERVICE RESTORED
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.
China says it is committed to the arrangement and denies meddling. It has accused foreign governments including the United States and Britain of inciting the unrest.
City rail services resumed on Thursday after being halted on Wednesday night at Sha Tin station, where protesters vandalized fittings for the second time this week.
Rail operator MTR has at times suspended city rail services during the protests, preventing some demonstrators from gathering, and making it a target of attack, with protesters vandalizing stations and setting fires near some exits.
Hong Kong is on edge ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, with authorities eager to avoid scenes that could embarrass the central government in Beijing.
The Asian financial hub also marks the fifth anniversary this weekend of the start of the “Umbrella” protests, a series of pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 that failed to wrest concessions from Beijing.
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