Hong Kong - Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam refused to offer any concessions to anti-government protesters on Tuesday despite a local election trouncing, saying she will instead accelerate dialogue and identify ways to address societal grievances.
Lam said the central government in Beijing didn’t blame her for the election outcome that gave the pro-democracy bloc a landslide victory with 90% of the seats and control of 17 out of 18 district councils.
Nearly 3 million voters cast ballots in a record turnout for an election that was viewed as a barometer of public support for more than five months of pro-democracy protests. The government’s refusal to compromise despite the outcome could spark more unrest at a time when the semi-autonomous Chinese territory has plunged into its first recession in a decade.
Lam said Sunday’s election may have reflected unhappiness with the government’s handling of the unrest but also showed that many people want a stop to violence.
“Let me just stress that after these five-six months, Hong Kong people have realized very clearly that Hong Kong could no longer tolerate this chaotic situation,” Lam said at her weekly news conference. “Please help us to maintain the relative calm and peace that we have seen in the last week or so and provide a good basis for Hong Kong to move forward.”
A university sent six teams into its closed campus to look for anyone still holding out more than a week after protesters used it as a base for clashes with police outside.
“If we come across any people who are still staying here, we will persuade them to leave,” Alexander Wai, vice president of Hong Kong Polytechnic, said before heading in.
As of 1 p.m., the teams had gone through four buildings and found no one, a university statement said. It added that every floor had been damaged and gasoline bombs and other dangerous items were lying around.
The holdouts are trying to avoid arrest. Only a handful are believed to remain.
A major road tunnel near Polytechnic will reopen Wednesday, a senior city official announced. It has been closed for two weeks after protesters blocked it and set the toll booths on fire.
Lam said that when she withdrew an extradition bill in September that had sparked the protests, she also gave a detailed response to the protesters’ other demands, including free elections for the city’s leader and legislature and a probe into accusations of police brutality.
The government hopes to take advantage of the current lull in violence to accelerate public dialogue and set up an independent review committee to find solutions to deep-seated societal issues, she said.
“The next step to go forward is really, as you have put it, to engage the people. And we have started public dialogue with the community,” Lam said. “But unfortunately, with the unstable environment and a chaotic situation, I could not do more on that sort of engagement. I hope that the environment will allow me to do it now."
Some pro-establishment figures have pointed fingers at Lam for their loss, while the pro-democracy camp has asked her to step down.
Protesters saw the extradition bill as an erosion of their rights promised when the former British colony returned to Chinese control in 1997. The demonstrations have since expanded into a protest over what they see as Beijing’s growing interference in the city.
Some analysts said China’s ruling Communist Party isn’t likely to soften its stand on Hong Kong. Chinese media have muted reports on the poll outcome, focusing instead on how pro-Beijing candidates were harassed and the need to restore law and order.
Beijing is treading cautiously partly to avoid jeopardizing trade talks with the United States. It also faces pressure from planned U.S. legislation that could derail Hong Kong’s special trade status and sanction Hong Kong and China officials found to violate human rights.
China’s foreign ministry on Monday summoned U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad for a second time to demand Washington block the bipartisan legislation on Hong Kong. Vice Minister Zheng Zeguang warned that the U.S. would “bear all the consequences that arise” if the bill is signed by President Donald Trump.
Trump has not committed to signing it and has 10 days from the time of its passage last week to veto it. If he does not do so, it automatically becomes law. Congress could also override a veto with a two-thirds majority vote in both houses.
Derek Mitchell, a former U.S ambassador to Myanmar who heads the Washington-based National Democratic Institute, denied accusations that it had funded or supported the Hong Kong protesters. China has accused foreign forces and money of being a “black hand” behind the protests.
Mitchell, speaking in Hong Kong, said citizens had spoken “loudly and clearly” in the local election and that the government must respond to prevent the protests from sliding into an abyss.
“The ball is in the court of the government here and authorities in Beijing,” he said.
In a boost to the city, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange on Tuesday, rising nearly 7% in a strong start before losing most of its gains later in the morning. Alibaba’s share sale of at least $11.3 billion in its secondary listing is the world’s biggest this year.