October 8, 2019 / 2:05 AM / 5 days ago

Hong Kong leader Lam does not rule out Beijing help, as economy suffers

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam on Tuesday did not rule out asking Beijing for help, as the Asian financial hub struggles to deal with months of often violent anti-government protests that are damaging its economy.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks during a news conference in Hong Kong, China, October 8, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Lam said Beijing wanted Hong Kong to solve its own problems, but under its mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, Hong Kong could ask Beijing for help.

“If the situation becomes so bad, then no options could be ruled out, if we want Hong Kong to at least have another chance,” Lam said at weekly news conference after a long weekend of violence crippled the city.

“But at this moment, I and my team, we are still very committed in making sure we can use our own instruments ... to try and restore calm and order in Hong Kong,” she said, adding there were no plans to expand emergency laws introduced on Friday. “But I would appeal (to) everyone in society to join hands to achieve this objective.”

The protests, which show no sign of abating, pose the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012 and are Hong Kong’s thorniest political crisis since Britain returned it to China in 1997.

Lam said protests were severely damaging the economy.

“Hong Kong’s various sectors will enter a severe winter season,” she said.

Tens of thousands of protesters, many families with children, took to the streets of Hong Kong over the weekend wearing face masks in defiance of colonial-era emergency laws invoked on Friday which ban masks at public rallies. Protesters use masks to shield their identities.

But the rallies, which started out peaceful, spiralled into some of the most violent clashes since protests started four months ago, forcing the unprecedented shutdown of the city’s metro after stations were torched.

YOUNG DEMONSTRATORS ARRESTED

Police said on Tuesday 77 people had been arrested for violating the anti-mask law, including a 12-year-old.

Since September nearly 40% of those arrested in protests were under 18 and 10% under 15, said Lam, adding young people should not be involved in political activity.

Two teenagers have been shot and wounded in skirmishes with police and scores of people and police have been injured.

Authorities have described protesters as “militant activists”, but many Hong Kong residents are also angry at the emergency powers, fearing their civil rights could be eroded.

On Tuesday, hundreds of school and university students attended class wearing masks in protest at the emergency law.

Since Friday, more than 200 shops and public utilities had been damaged and police fired 367 tear gas rounds, said a police spokesman.

“Rioters’ level of violence has been escalating, without showing any sign of abating from week to week, and has reached a very critical level,” said Kwok Yam-yung, a regional police commander.

“Such ruthless and reckless acts are pushing the rule of law to the brink of total collapse,” he told a news conference.

Sunday also saw the first interaction between protesters and Chinese troops stationed in the territory. Protesters targeted a military barracks with lasers prompting troops to hoist a banner warning they could be arrested. Senior People’s Liberation Army officers have said violence will not be tolerated.

‘CHALLENGE TO STABILITY’

What started as opposition to a now-withdrawn extradition bill has grown into a pro-democracy movement against what is seen as Beijing’s tightening grip on the city, which protesters say undermines a “one country, two systems” formula promised when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule.

China dismisses such accusations, saying foreign governments, including Britain and the United States, have fanned anti-China sentiment.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday anything bad happening in Hong Kong would be bad for U.S.-China trade talks.

The protests have threatened to entangle global businesses that have alluded to the turmoil in publicity material, including U.S. luxury jewellery retailer Tiffany & Co and sports brand Vans.

Chinese state television said it would not air NBA exhibition games played in the country this week after a tweet by a Houston Rockets executive backing the protests.

“In our opinion, any speech that challenges national sovereignty and social stability, should not be regarded as a freedom of expression,” CCTV said.

China’s Oct. 1 National Day holiday week is normally a time when Hong Kong is flooded with visitors, but many shops were closed and tourist numbers plummeted 50%, said Lam, warning the city’s third quarter economic data would “surely be very bad”.

The territory is facing its first recession in a decade.

Hong Kong’s metro, which normally carries some 5 million people daily, was only partially operating on Tuesday. Scores of shops were closed and many bank cash machines were vandalised.

Lam appealed to property developers and landlords to offer relief to retailers whose businesses had been hit.

Slideshow (9 Images)

The last British governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten has warned someone could be killed if Lam does not engage in dialogue and has joined protesters in calling for an independent inquiry into accusations of excessive force by police.

But the city government has rejected accusations of excessive force.

“I believed if the same thing in Hong Kong happened in other countries, they would not respond to those things in any lighter measures than we do,” said Lam.

Reporting by Farah Masters, Noah Sin, John Ruwitch, Clare Jim, Donny Kwok and Sharon Tam; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and Alex Richardson

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