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Hong Kong’s embattled leader faces barrage of criticism at ‘dialogue’ session

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks at a community dialogue with selected participants at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Hong Kong on Sept. 26. (Kin Cheung/AP)

HONG KONG — Tight-lipped and stoic, embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam faced a barrage of criticism Thursday during a dialogue with randomly selected members of the public — her first attempt to directly engage with people in the semiautonomous Chinese territory after 17 weeks of spiraling unrest and violence.

“You may be an excellent administrator, but you don’t know how to be a politician,” one member of the audience told her.

“Citizens have no trust in you or the police,” another said. 

“Hong Kongers are stronger than you imagine — five demands, not one less!” exclaimed a young man in a suit, noting the protesters’ list of needed reforms and inquests.

The pointed and unvarnished questions Lam faced — coupled with a protest outside the stadium where the exchanges were going on — made clear the depth of mistrust in Hong Kong’s institutions and Lam’s fraught position ahead of what is likely to be another chaotic weekend of violent protests leading up to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Tuesday.

After the meeting, hundreds of protesters gathered around the venue’s exits and built barricades in an apparent effort to stop Lam and other officials from leaving, ignoring police warnings to disperse. Police finally escorted her into a black sedan four hours after the event ended.

Lam’s dialogue, envisioned as conversations with a wide range of Hong Kong residents, was among the concessions she offered earlier this month when she announced the full withdrawal of a controversial bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China — one of the protesters’ five demands. Critics at the time said she was out of step with the expectations and focus of the protesters, who have come to be more concerned about police use of force and are again demanding direct elections for Hong Kong leaders.

More than 20,000 applied to take part in the dialogue, and of those, 150 were randomly selected to participate. Of the 30 people chosen to speak, more than 20 were critical of authorities and supportive of protesters. 

The flavor of the event was clear from the outset. Police had planned various routes to bring Lam into and out of the stadium, a 3,500-seat indoor sports arena in the Wan Chai district, after forums online discussed blocking her path. Riot police carting cases full of crowd-control equipment were seen filing into the stadium in the afternoon. Police presence in the area was heavy, and schools allowed students to leave early in anticipation of clashes.

Lam began the dialogue session by telling attendees that it was not a mere public relations exercise and that it was “time to communicate.” She was flanked by other members of her government, including the secretary of home affairs and the secretary of constitutional and mainland affairs, who is responsible for managing Hong Kong’s relationship with China.

Although Beijing has upped the threats and rhetoric around the protests, it has largely been up to Hong Kong police to suppress dissent that has sometimes spiraled into violence. Hong Kong’s police force, once among the most respected in Asia, has been accused of using unreasonable force against protesters.

Human rights groups and U.N. officials — along with many Hong Kong residents, including some in the pro-Beijing camp — have called for a fully independent investigation of the police department.

Lam, however, continues to insist that the Independent Police Complaints Council is up to the task, an assertion she repeated in the face of criticism Thursday. But there is deep distrust of the organization, which lacks the ability to call witnesses and which critics think is staffed by officials loyal to Lam. 

“A commission of inquiry is one way to find out the truth,” she said Thursday. “But we should give the Independent Police Complaints Council a chance to do their job first.”

Chants from the protesters gathered outside the stadium were so loud that they could, at times, be heard inside. Among the demonstrators was a 45-year-old salesman who decried the dialogue as a “show.”

“We cannot trust the government,” said the man, who wanted to be identified only as Li. “It is useless to talk to our dishonest chief executive.”

Li added that he will be among those protesting on Tuesday, the anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Large protests are planned over the weekend and on the day itself, as protesters seek to make clear that they reject Beijing’s tight control over their city, which was promised significant autonomy when the British handed it over in 1997.

Those freedoms were meant to be preserved for 50 years, until 2047, and questions remain about what the next steps will be for Hong Kong. One speaker on Thursday put it to Lam this way: “You will be 90 by 2047, so it won’t matter to you by then. But I am 26 now and will be 55 in 2047. Do we have a future then?”

Lam concluded the Thursday session by promising more conversation and pledged to work to restore trust in her government. But questions have surfaced about whether she is truly in charge, and officials have acknowledged that they have limited room to maneuver in the face of a more assertive Beijing, which insists on no further concessions to the movement.

The reality of Lam’s difficult position, between Beijing and her own people, was not missed by dialogue participants.

“We all know you are not in charge,” said one man who was wearing a black mask. “So, there’s really not much to say.”

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