Hong Kong chief abandons policy speech; protest leader hospitalised
HONG KONG, (AFP): Hong Kong’s embattled leader abandoned a State of the Union-style speech on Wednesday after she was shouted down by opposition lawmakers on a day that also saw a prominent protest leader left bloodied by hammer-wielding thugs.
The speech by chief executive Carrie Lam was billed as an attempt to win hearts and minds after four months of seething pro-democracy protests.
Instead the day laid bare the intense polarisation coursing through the semi-autonomous financial hub after four months of huge and increasingly violent rallies.
Lam’s speech was swiftly dismissed by protesters who called for a new rally on Sunday.
Hours later the leader of the group organising that march was rushed to hospital after an attack by suspected government loyalists.
The city’s unelected pro-Beijing leader, who has historic low approval ratings, tried twice to begin her policy address inside the Legislative Council, three months after the building was trashed by masked protesters.
But pro-democracy lawmakers — a minority of the pro-Beijing stacked legislature — heckled her and called for her resignation.
Lam instead released a pre-recorded video, announcing plans to increase housing and land supply in a city that has one of the least affordable property markets in the world, as well as various subsidies.
“I firmly believe that Hong Kong will be able to ride out this storm and move on,” she said.
– Hammer attack –
But the economic sweeteners did little to placate her opponents.
“So much has happened on Hong Kong’s streets over the past four months but Lam has been either hiding in her abyss or acting like a wax figure,” pro-democracy lawmaker Tanya Chan told reporters.
The Civil Human Right Front (CHRF), a non-violent protest group behind a series of huge marches earlier in the summer, said it was applying for a police permit to hold a new march on Sunday.
Recent requests by the group have been rejected, with more hardcore activists instead holding wildcat protests and quickly clashing with police.
Come nightfall the group said its leader Jimmy Sham was attacked, with photos posted online showing him lying on the street in a pool of blood.
“It is not hard to link this incident to a spreading political terror in order to threaten and inhibit the legitimate exercise of natural and legal rights,” the CHRF said, adding Sham was conscious as he was taken to hospital.
Multiple pro-democracy activists have been attacked by pro-Beijing supporters in recent months.
As the violence has escalated, hardcore pro-democracy protesters have also begun meting out their own street justice, beating people who vocally disagree with their goals or are viewed to be government loyalists.
– ‘Following Beijing’s instructions’ –
Willy Lam, a politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Lam’s speech would do little to quell protests which are fuelled by years of anger over sliding freedoms and the inability of Hong Kongers to elect their own leaders.
“Carrie Lam is following instructions from Beijing,” he told AFP. “Even the economic handouts do not seem to be particularly impressive.”
Millions have taken to the streets of Hong Kong, initially against a now-dropped bid by its leaders to allow extraditions to the authoritarian Chinese mainland.
But after Beijing and Lam took a hard line, the movement snowballed into a broader push for democracy and police accountability.
Activists say freedoms are being eroded by Beijing, contrary to a deal that outlined Hong Kong’s 1997 return to China from British colonial rule.
Protesters have said they will only end their huge rallies if core demands are met, including an independent inquiry into the police, an amnesty for the more than 2,500 people arrested and universal suffrage.
Both Lam and Beijing have repeatedly dismissed those demands and say Hong Kong’s freedoms are being protected.
Lam’s speech comes after the US House of Representatives passed a bill late Tuesday that aims to defend civil rights in Hong Kong and has drawn rare bipartisan support in a polarised Congress.
China, which has accused “external forces” of fuelling weeks of unrest in the city, expressed its “strong indignation” over the bill and told Washington to “stop meddling”.
Hong Kong’s police, who have used live rounds in recent weeks, deny using excessive force and say they are facing increasingly life-threatening violence from hardcore protesters.
On Wednesday, police said two men were arrested for allegedly trying to build bombs attached to drones.
Police said they were targeted by a remote-controlled explosive device on Sunday, the first time such a weapon has been used, although the small blast caused no injuries.