Hong Kong leaders rebuff key protest demand as violence persists

People move away from tear gas fired by police during a rally at Chater Garden in Hong Kong on Jan 19, 2020. PHOTO: AFP
Police detain an injured man after dispersing a rally in Chater Garden in Hong Kong on Jan 19, 2020. PHOTO: AFP
Police clash with journalists after dispersing a rally at Chater Garden in Hong Kong on Jan 19, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG, AFP) - Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam's government again pushed back on a key demand of protesters as a downtown rally turned violent, showing the unrest that began last June still has no end in sight.

In a lengthy statement on Sunday (Jan 19), a government spokesman recapped failed attempts to implement a promise of universal suffrage since China took control of the former British colony in 1997. It said the Hong Kong's residents need a "clear understanding" that any chief executive elected by all citizens shall also be accountable to Beijing.

"This is the constitutional order under the 'one country, two systems' principle which should not be ignored," the spokesman said. "The community needs to attain a consensus on these principles, and premised on the legal basis, to narrow differences through dialogues under a peaceful atmosphere with mutual trust."

"Any constructive discussion on the issue of constitutional development would be difficult to commence if the aforesaid cannot be achieved," it added.

The statement, which mimics the same stance Beijing has held on universal suffrage since 2014, shows that Lam's government still isn't budging on the core demand still driving the protests.

The demonstration on Sunday started peacefully in Chater Garden in the Central business district, with speeches and music drawing in thousands of people. But police ordered the rally to end early, citing violent behaviour by protesters who fanned out from the approved meeting area.

Police scuffled with demonstrators and handcuffed a number of people who blocked roads and set fire to barricades. Riot police fired tear gas to disperse the crowds.

Two officers from the Police Community Liaison Office suffered head wounds after being attacked with wooden sticks and other weapons near the rally, according to the police. One protester had blood streaming from the back of his head during the scuffles, AFP reported.

Earlier, thousands of protesters had chanted slogans such as "stand with Hong Kong, fight for freedom", after prominent activists called for continued support for the demonstrations to keep their grievances in the world spotlight.

Some waved American, British and Hong Kong independence flags. There were many families and children present with a peaceful atmosphere until police ordered the crowds to leave.

Police had approved the gathering in Chater Garden in the Central business district but not a planned march to the Causeway Bay shopping area, citing concerns that it could turn violent.

The unrest, now into its seventh month, has plunged Hong Kong into its first recession since the global financial crisis, with the retail and tourism sectors particularly hard hit.

Sunday's rally followed a relative lull in the past weeks of the sometimes-violent protests that were ignited by a Bill to allow extraditions to mainland China.

While the frequency and ferocity of Hong Kong's protests have died down over the last month, signs of the political unrest are everywhere, from graffiti daubed on walls to huge fences surrounding government buildings.

People take part in a rally at Chater Garden in Hong Kong on Jan 19, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

The demonstrators' demands have broadened to include greater democracy and an independent inquiry into police conduct.

Activist Joshua Wong had said the number of participants in Sunday's march was crucial to continue informing the international community of Hong Kong's ongoing struggle.

Speaking to local media, he said the movement needed to maintain a sufficient level of demonstrators at the marches to ensure the world's attention does not wane.

One of Sunday's rally organisers, Mr Ventus Lau, of the Hong Kong Civil Assembly team, said his goal was to get the world to focus on the city again after global headlines turned to Taiwan's election and the crisis involving Iran. He also insisted protesters would keep fighting for meaningful elections.

"If the government refuses to give us universal suffrage, this is a clear sign that they are still suppressing our human rights, our freedom and our democracy," Mr Lau said.

Beijing has stuck to a proposal for universal suffrage that it outlined in August 2014, triggering the Occupy protests.

The plan would've required nominees to be screened by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists Hong Kong before being put to a public vote, with a requirement that the person "loves the country and loves Hong Kong."

The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office reaffirmed that proposal in September, saying that Beijing would never allow Hong Kong's opposition to pick a leader who wasn't accountable to the central government.

Traffic through Hong Kong International Airport declined across the board last year as months of unrest, including protest-related closures at the transit hub.

The airport handled 71.5 million passengers in 2019, down 4.2 per cent from a year earlier, the Airport Authority Hong Kong said in a press release on Sunday.

Flight movements fell 1.9 per cent, while total cargo throughput declined 6.1 per cent from a year ago to 4.8 million tonnes.

Some of the more violent clashes seen in Hong Kong happened at the airport and its rail link last year as protesters organised sit-ins that led to the delays and cancellation of hundreds of flights.

Meanwhile, Ms Lisa Lau, a former member of the Independent Police Complaints Council, said the body's lack of investigative powers is an impediment to investigating the protests, and added the group has not yet met the police commander in charge of the July incident in Yuen Long when subway riders were violently attacked, Ming Pao reported on Sunday.

Lam is due to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this week to "remind global political, business and media leaders" of the city's resilience. Her government's statement on Sunday also condemned protester calls for foreign governments to sanction alleged human rights offenders from Hong Kong.

"Foreign governments, legislatures or organisations have absolutely no role in matters relating to the constitutional development of Hong Kong, and should not express any opinion or take any action in an attempt to influence or interfere in the discussions of related matters in Hong Kong," it said.

More than 100 people gathered in Kowloon Tong on Saturday to protest what they see as anti-government bias from local broadcaster RTHK.

Elsewhere, about 50 pro-police supporters rallied outside the Mong Kok police station, presenting officers with gifts to show their support.

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