HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters took to the hills to form flashlight-carrying human chains on Friday (Sept 13), using the Mid-Autumn Festival as a backdrop for the latest in more than three months of demonstrations that have sometimes flared into violence.
The peaceful protests, on a day when families traditionally gather to gaze at the moon and eat mooncakes while children swing colourful lanterns from the end of sticks, came after Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam promised to focus on housing and jobs to try to end the unrest.
Mrs Lam said in a Facebook post late on Thursday (Sept 12) - without details - that her government would increase the supply of housing, with more policies to be announced. The Chief Executive also said that the six housing initiatives she proposed in June last year have now been put in place.
The initiatives are: delinking the price of subsidised-sale flats from market prices, the "starter home" pilot scheme, greater support for temporary housing, the reallocation of nine land sites from private to public use, a tax on new flats which have been left vacant, and tackling pre-sale tactics by land developers.
On Friday, the Hong Kong government gazetted its vacancy tax bill, aimed at deterring property developers from hoarding flats and boosting housing supply, local broadcaster RTHK reported.
“The government will add to housing supply measures which will be continuously put in place and not missed,” said Mrs Lam.
As darkness fell on Friday night, protesters armed with flashlights, mobile phones and flashing lanterns, gathered at Victoria Peak, overlooking the city’s harbour, and Lion Rock, separating the New Territories from the Kowloon peninsula. They were also climbing to the top of Tai Tung Shan on the offshore island of Lantau.
The spark for the protests was a now-withdrawn extradition Bill and concerns that Beijing is eroding civil liberties, but many young protesters are also angry at sky-high living costs and a lack of job prospects.
Hong Kong has some of the world’s most expensive real estate and many young people say the city’s housing policy is unfair, benefiting the rich while forcing them to live with their parents or rent “shoe box” apartments at exorbitant prices.
The demonstrations started in June in response to a Bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts, but have broadened into calls for greater democracy.
The former British colony returned to China in 1997 under a“one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland – including a much-cherished independent legal system.
At lunch on Friday, hundreds of pro-Beijing supporters packed into a shopping mall waving China flags and singing the Chinese national anthem.
Sit-ins at shopping malls are also planned over the weekend. Activists also plan to gather outside the British consulate on Sunday to demand that China honours the Sino-British Joint Declaration that was signed in 1984, laying out Hong Kong’s post-1997 future.
China says Hong Kong is now its internal affair. It denies meddling in Hong Kong and has accused the United States, Britain and others of fomenting the unrest.
Britain says it has a legal responsibility to ensure China abides by its obligations under the Joint Declaration.
When protests have turned violence, police have responded to violence with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, water cannon and baton charges, as well as firing several live shots in the air, prompting complaints of excessive force.
Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing said on Friday he deeply regretted that his recent comments about the protests were misrepresented and reiterated that any actions that violate the rule of law cannot be tolerated.
Mr Li’s statement came after China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission published an article on social media accusing the tycoon of “harbouring criminality” after he called on the authorities to offer young people an olive branch amid the protests.
Mr Li said through his spokesman in a statement he would always accept criticism, but most importantly “lenience is not the same as indulgence, (and) is not the same as disregarding legal procedures”.
Hong Kong is facing its first recession in a decade as a result of the unrest. A surge in migration applications suggests more locals are making plans to leave.
China has called on its biggest state firms to take a more active role in Hong Kong, including stepping up investment and asserting more control over companies.
Multiple Hong Kong events and conferences have been cancelled and the number of visitors plunged 40 per cent in August.
The city’s premier women’s tennis event scheduled for October has been postponed. Organisers also called off the Royal Shakespeare Company’s“Matilda the Musical”, due to run from Sept 20 to Oct 20.
Police on Tuesday (Sept 10) set up an “anti-violence hotline” on which people could call in giving intelligence on planned unrest. On Friday they announced it had been shut down.
“A large amount of information was received and at the same time, there were different opinions,” police said in a statement. “...As a result, police decided to suspend the hot line.”