HONG KONG -- Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Friday played up the economic damage stemming from months of protests in the territory, and pledged "aggressive" steps to help struggling businesses.
Speaking at a news conference after meeting more than 30 business representatives, the embattled leader said the protests are hurting the economy more than the 2007-2008 global financial crisis and the devastating SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic of 2003.
"The negative impact to the economy will not go away in the short term. Some people say it's like a tsunami," Lam told reporters in the city. "Compared to the damage caused by SARS and the financial crisis, I am afraid the situation is worse this time."
She also warned that unemployment will rise as businesses, especially in the retail, catering and tourism sectors, were hit by the protests.
Lam said the government was considering relief measures to ease the pressure on small businesses and stabilize employment. She also urged the city's property developers to cut rents.
The chief executive also said she would unveil "more aggressive" policies to boost the economy and the international reputation of the territory, which she said had been damaged during the unrest.
But Lam still refuses to meet the demands of protesters. Demonstrators are making five distinct requests: Withdraw the bill; rescind the characterization of protesters as rioters; the unconditional release of arrested protesters; the formation of an independent commission to investigate the police; and the implementation of universal suffrage.
"Hong Kong mustn't be messed up. This is the consensus of most people in our society," Lam said, adding that stopping the violence is the top priority to restore the economy.
Hong Kong's economy grew less than expected in the second quarter amid the protests and an escalation of the U.S.-China trade war. A 0.6% expansion in April-June from a year earlier was much less than an average forecast of 1.6% from five economists. On a quarterly basis, gross domestic product shrank 0.3%.
While Lam spoke, hundreds of people were gathering at the Hong Kong International Airport as part of a three-day sit-in to protest against the suspended extradition bill, and to gain support from international communities for their demands. The campaign has prompted the airport operator to tighten security measures, leading to longer waiting times for passengers to reach departure gates.
Meanwhile, the police have banned three marches planned over the weekend due to security concerns. A police spokesperson said at a regular news conference that the recent demonstrations show the organizers were not able to control the situation, which often led to violent clashes.