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Hong Kong had a brief reprieve from protests. That’s about to end

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03:03 - Source: CNN
Pro-democracy parties win big in Hong Kong election
Hong Kong CNN —  

You couldn’t ask for a better symbol of Hong Kong returning to relative normality after two weeks of chaotic unrest than traffic flowing through the Cross Harbor Tunnel.

The key transport link reopened on Wednesday for the first time since November 13, when it was blocked by anti-government protesters amid a dramatic escalation of violence after almost six months of unrest.

Officials said more than 42 tons of debris were removed from the area around the tunnel, which is situated next to the campus of Polytechnic University (PolyU), where the last protesters left this week after a prolonged standoff with police.

Hong Kong seems more subdued this week, but the peace, which began with general fatigue after the PolyU siege and transformed into genuine calm over the weekend as protesters avoided doing anything that could disrupt district council elections, does not look likely to last.

That’s because, despite a thumping defeat in those elections, which saw pro-democracy parties win around 90% of seats and take control of all but one district council, the government’s reaction has been less than forthcoming and seems almost certain to provoke further discontent.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam arrives for a press conference in Hong Kong on November 26, 2019.
NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/AFP via Getty Images
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam arrives for a press conference in Hong Kong on November 26, 2019.

Speaking Tuesday, the city’s leader Carrie Lam said that “the views and opinions expressed, I hope you agree, are quite diverse” and were not necessarily an indictment of her failure to end the protests or a desire to see the opposition movement’s demands achieved.

“There are people who want to express the view that they could no longer tolerate the violence on the streets, (and) there are people who felt that the government has not handled competently the legislative exercise and its aftermath,” she said, reiterating that she had withdrawn the extradition bill which started the entire crisis.

Just how much Lam has failed to alleviate public anger will be seen later this week, when several protests are planned, including a “Thanksgiving rally” on Thursday, and an anti-tear gas march called for Sunday.

No response

For months now, protesters have campaigned under the slogan of “five demands, not one less.” Those demands are: withdraw the extradition bill (since achieved); launch an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality; retract any categorization of a protest on June 12 as a “riot”; amnesty for arrested protesters; and the introduction of universal suffrage for Chief Executive and Legislative Council elections.

Few people expected Lam to respond to all those demands, regardless of how impressive the election results were, but some observers were nevertheless taken aback by the scale of her non-response Tuesday.

“The nature of these elections is simply to elect district council members to serve on the 18 district councils. It is not for the government and for myself to give it another interpretation because by law we are electing members to serve on the district councils,” she said.

While she conceded that some voters wanted to express their dissatisfaction with the government, others, Lam said, were trying to voice disapproval of the violence.

“The next step to go forward is really … to engage the people, and we have started public dialogue with the community,” she added. “Unfortunately, with the unstable and violent environment and chaotic situation, I could not do more of that sort of engagement. I hope that the environment will allow me to do it now.”

The one apparent concession Lam made was that the government was looking “to set up an independent review committee to look at the causes of the social unrest which has lasted for so long in Hong Kong, to identify the underlying problems, social, economic, or even political, and to recommend measures that the government should take.”

However, while that may hint at meeting one of the protesters’ demands, it is just the type of prevarication – such as “suspending” but not officially withdrawing the extradition bill in the early days of the crisis – that has failed in the past.