HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam came under a barrage of criticism at a town hall session Thursday, with citizens accusing her government of turning a deaf ear to months of protests calling for democratic reforms in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
The community dialogue was the first since massive demonstrations began in June over an extradition bill that the government has now promised to withdraw. Protesters have since expanded their demands to include direct elections for the city’s leaders and police accountability.
Scores of protesters chanted slogans outside the Queen Elizabeth stadium in the Wan Chai area that was locked down as Lam met with more than 130 people, selected randomly from over 20,000 applicants.
Speaker after speaker railed against government arrogance leading to increasingly violent youth-led protests that show no signs of abating. They slammed the use of force by police and questioned Lam’s sincerity after she rejected protesters’ demands.
Only 30 of the people were picked by ballot to speak for three minutes each.
Lam, flanked by several Cabinet members, listened quietly during the more than two-hour session. She acknowledged the deep distrust of her government and police and vowed to regain public confidence.
“‘We connect’ is my campaign slogan, but after two years, some have described it as disconnect and even out of touch. . I know that and hope to change,” said Lam, who was elected by a pro-Beijing committee in 2017.
She repeated that violence must stop and the rule of law be upheld and reiterated that complaints of police brutality will be investigated thoroughly by a police watchdog body, without the need for a separate independent inquiry.
Critics called the dialogue, which was broadcast live, a political show of appeasement before major rallies planned this weekend ahead of China’s National Day celebrations on Oct. 1.
“This is not just a PR show but aimed to bring change” so Hong Kong can be a better territory, Lam said. More dialogue sessions are planned.
Riot police were on guard, and X-ray machines and metal detectors were used to prevent participants from carrying in banned items such as umbrellas, helmets and gas masks — gear used by protesters to shield their identities and ward off tear gas.
Hundreds of students and others formed human chains at roads near the stadium earlier Thursday. Scores later moved outside the stadium and chanted slogans as they waited for Lam to leave. She waited four hours, leaving after most of the protesters had dispersed.
“To Hong Kong people, it’s a joke,” said Bonnie Leung of the Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized several massive rallies. “If she really wants to communicate with Hong Kong people, all she has to do is to open her door, we are right outside.”
The protests have turned increasingly violent in recent weeks as demonstrators lobbed gasoline bombs at government buildings, vandalized public facilities and set street fires, prompting police to respond with tear gas and water cannons. More than 1,500 people, including children as young as 12, have been detained.
The extradition bill, which would have allowed some criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial, is seen by many as an example of Hong Kong’s eroding autonomy since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The Civil Human Rights Front has received police approval for a rally on Saturday and has applied for another major march on Oct. 1.
China has accused the U.S. and other foreign powers of being behind the riots.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Thursday warned the U.S. Congress to halt work on a bill that proposes economic sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials found to have suppressed democracy in Hong Kong. The foreign affairs committees of both the House and Senate approved the bill Wednesday, setting up votes by both chambers.
Geng said at a daily briefing in Beijing that the move was an endorsement of Hong Kong’s radical forces. “We will forcefully fight back against any U.S. attempt to harm China’s interests,” he said.
Associated Press reporter Joe McDonald in Beijing contributed to this report.