HONG KONG: Hong Kong residents turned on leader Carrie Lam on Thursday (Sep 26) as she held the first "open dialogue" session with the public in a bid to end more than three months of sometimes violent protests.
Lam nodded attentively in the town hall-like gathering as speaker-after-speaker accused her administration of ignoring the public and exacerbating a crisis that has no end in sight.
READ: 20,000 apply for chance to 'vent anger' at Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam during dialogue session
During the evening Lam dismissed accusations that the meeting was a public-relations exercise, saying she was there to listen as she admitted trust in her government had "fallen off a cliff".
"The whole storm was caused by the extradition Bill initiated by the government," Lam said at the British colonial-era indoor Queen Elizabeth Stadium. "If we want to walk away from the difficulty and find a way out, the government has to take the biggest responsibility to do so."
Protests over the now-shelved extradition Bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial have evolved into broader calls for full democracy, in a stark challenge to China's Communist Party leaders.
Protesters are angry about what they see as creeping Chinese interference in Hong Kong, which returned to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula intended to guarantee freedoms that are not enjoyed on the mainland.
More than 20,000 people applied to attend Thursday's meeting with authorities picking 150 people in a lottery.
Questions were chosen at random and compared to the angry demonstrations on Hong Kong's streets this summer, the atmosphere remained cordial inside the sports stadium.
Outside, crowds of black-clad protesters chanted: "Hong Kong people, add oil," a slogan meaning "keep your strength up".
Speakers in the stadium dressed down Lam on a number of fronts including curbs on electoral freedoms, ignoring public opinion, and refusing to allow an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality during the protests.
Most called on her to launch an independent commission of inquiry into allegations of police brutality and how the protests have been handled.
"The police have become a political tool of the government and right now there is no way to check police abuses of power," one woman said, hiding her face with a surgical mask.
"Everyone has lost confidence in police," another female audience member said. Another said police had been left to deal with an issue that can only be solved politically.
One woman called on Lam to resign, saying she was no longer fit to lead.
"You say you want to listen to the people, but the people have been voicing their demands for three months," one male attendee said.
Of the 30 people chosen to speak throughout the evening, 24 openly criticised the government, two made neutral comments while four expressed sympathy for Lam's administration.
"WE STILL CARE"
Lam listened, taking notes, before responding on occasion. She appealed for people to give her government a chance, while emphasizing Hong Kong still had a bright future and a strong rule of law.
"I hope you all understand that we still care about Hong Kong society. Our heart still exists," she said. "We will maintain our care for this society."
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She stressed again, however, that she sees no need at the moment for an independent inquiry, with an existing police complaint mechanism sufficient to meet public concerns.
After the prosecution of previous democracy activists in recent years, this movement has been deliberately leaderless and largely organised online.
But that has made it difficult for Lam's administration to know who to reach out to for talks.
City rail services resumed on Thursday after being halted on Wednesday night at Sha Tin station, where protesters vandalized fittings for the second time this week.
Rail operator MTR has at times suspended city rail services during the protests, preventing some demonstrators from gathering and thus making it a target of attack, with protesters vandalizing stations and setting fires near some exits.
When violence has flared, police have responded with tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets.
China says it is committed to the "one country, two systems" arrangement and denies meddling. It has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of inciting the unrest.
Hong Kong is on edge ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on Oct 1, with authorities eager to avoid scenes that could embarrass the central government in Beijing. Activists have planned a whole host of protests on the day.
The Asian financial hub also marks the fifth anniversary this weekend of the start of the "Umbrella" protests, a series of pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 that failed to wrest concessions from Beijing.
Resident Poon Yau-lok, 62, was sceptical that Thursday's talks would make any difference.
"They wouldn't listen when 200,000 people marched on the street," she told Reuters. "Why would they listen to just 150?"
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