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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong leader's first dialogue with public ends in chaos

Protesters surround venue after Carrie Lam says demands cross 'bottom line'

Anti-government protesters destroy a fence outside the venue of first community dialogue held by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Sept. 26.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Protesters here reaffirmed their demands for political change Thursday night after Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam held her first dialogue with members of the public following four months of unrest.

The two-hour dialogue, held under heavy security and meant to air public grievances in the Asian financial hub, appears to have failed to calm the activists, as none of their key demands were accepted.

Instead, Lam called on the young demonstrators to respect the rule of law.

As the troubled chief executive vowed to initiate more dialogue with the public in her closing remarks, thousands of protesters massed outside Queen Elizabeth Stadium to stop her from leaving.

Some chanted the slogan "five demands, not one less," while others sang songs condemning police violence.

Dozens of black-clad protesters hurled bricks and removed iron railings to block roads near the venue. Police officers responded with blue flags, warning that they could use force if protesters did not disperse.

During the event, Lam said the government cannot accept protesters' demands in full because some of them cross the "bottom line." The demands of protesters have broadened during the monthslong standoff to include genuine universal suffrage in choosing both the city's legislature and chief executive.

Lam said it's very difficult for the government to drop the charges against violent protesters because that would be detrimental to Hong Kong's rule of law. And self-determination is also not an option because it would go beyond the framework of "one country, two systems" under which the city is governed, she said.

The event was the first open dialogue between the Hong Kong government and the public since the turmoil began in early June over a bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China. The proposal plunged the city into its biggest political crisis since the 1997 handover from British rule.

Some 30 people, selected through two rounds of draws from 20,000 applicants, were given the chance to speak.

Lam announced three weeks ago the formal withdrawal of the bill. But many critics have said the move was too little, too late.

Many asked why Lam refused to set up an independent inquiry into incidents in which police officers were suspected of using excessive force against protesters, media and even ordinary citizens. Lam said while she had heard such calls, the government decided to let the existing watchdog Independent Police Complaints Council carry out the work "after considering a number of factors." She did not elaborate on the factors.

This decision has been met with skepticism from critics, as the council is dominated by pro-government members. People also question the quality of IPCC's investigation, since the body lacks the power to summon witness.

Other topics including housing, education and Hong Kong's competitiveness were raised during the dialogue. Lam said she was "very touched" by the questions and acknowledged she had been somewhat disconnected from the public and did not listen enough to the voices of young people.

Others also took the chance to express their discontent with Lam's administration. One said it was too late for Lam to start the dialogue now, while another accused her of taking no action even though the protesters made their demands clear.

"Listening is not enough, you need to make changes," a speaker said.

Despite the formal withdrawal of the bill in early September, protesters have continued to clash with police on the streets, with a small hard-core group throwing petrol bombs.

Police have also escalated their use of force, using tear gas, water cannons, baton charges and beanbag rounds to disperse crowds. More than 1,500 people have been arrested.

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