Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam faces public anger in first community dialogue since protests began

Hong Kong CNN —  

Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam took part in a community dialogue session with members of the public on Thursday, the first such meeting since anti-government protests began 16 weeks ago.

Lam, who has come in for intense criticism and anger for her handling of the widespread public and political unrest in the city, faced some of that emotion Thursday night as a small sample of citizens asked her questions and voiced their frustrations.

“I understand that a lot of people have lost confidence in me,” Lam said in her opening remarks. “No matter where you stand politically, I understand people are anxious, worried and maybe even angry.”

Outside the stadium where the event was being held, a few hundred protesters gathered and shouted slogans, calling on Lam to meet their five demands.

Many saw the community dialogue as a government Public Relations stunt – 20,000 people had applied to attend and only 150 were pre-selected in a lottery.

“This is not a political or a PR show but to seek change. We hope this change will shape a better Hong Kong. While this change might be difficult, I believe we should start now,” Lam said. “The dialogue is aimed so we can change, the aim to change is so Hong Kong, the city we love can become better.”

Of the 130 people that showed up, 70 were selected to ask questions – and many of those vented their anger at Lam, asking her why she hadn’t implemented an independent commission into alleged police brutality, calling on her to release the detained protesters and questioned police response into attacks in Yuen Long and other areas. Some called for her to step down, accusing her of being a puppet for the Chinese central government.

“Hong Kong is like (it has been) diagnosed with cancer because of the chief executive,” said one woman dressed in a black cardigan. “You say you want to listen to people’s opinion, but many 1 million people come out to rally, the Lennon walls, strikes, civil disobedience movements. Those are the public opinions.”

Others spoke about the need for more public housing, as the unrest has expanded to include a range of demands tapping into longstanding frustrations over stalled political reform and economic injustice in Hong Kong. The city is the most expensive in the world and apartments can cost 21 times the average yearly wage.

Lam later acknowledged the five protesters demands. “I believe citizens would agree that the public’s demands are actually beyond the ‘five demands,’” said the chief executive, referencing the five principle demands of the movement, which include an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, the release of all detained protesters, and greater democratic freedoms including universal suffrage.

The protests, initially over a now-withdrawn extradition bill to mainland China, have grown more violent as the weeks have pushed on. Protesters have targeted subway stations and shopping malls, throwing petrol bombs and setting fires. Police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. There have also been several attacks on apparent bystanders during demonstrations and mob street brawls.

The protests have also hit Hong Kong’s economy hard, especially the tourism, retail and hotel industries. Paul Chan, Hong Kong’s financial secretary, said tourist arrivals plummeted in August by 40%.

The dialogue comes as Hong Kong gears up for its 17th weekend of protests, with marches expected on Saturday – the 5th anniversary of the start of the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

Police and protesters are also facing a major test next week when China marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1.