Hong Kong’s embattled leader endured a barrage of criticism at a town hall meeting Thursday night that laid bare anger coursing through the city after months of huge, sometimes violent pro-democracy protests.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam faced more than two hours of grilling at a public “dialogue session,” the first time her pro-Beijing administration has sat down with its critics in 16 consecutive weeks of unrest.
Millions have hit the streets while hardcore activists have clashed repeatedly with police in the biggest challenge to China’s rule since the city’s handover from Britain in 1997.
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 biggest responsibility lies with myself, I won’t shirk the responsibility,” she said.
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 where the gathering took place.
But thousands massed outside the venue to chant slogans.
Lam received little sympathy from audience members who rounded on her with speech after speech highlighting a litany of complaints toward her administration.
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.
Others called for universal suffrage. Currently the chief executive is chosen by a pro-Beijing committee and only half the city’s lawmakers are directly elected.
“You say you want to listen to the people, but the people have been voicing their demands for three months,” one male attendee said.
One female speaker likened Hong Kong to being sick with cancer. “And you want to heal the illness with a few painkillers,” she said.
After the gathering ended riot police formed lines in a street nearby as smaller crowds of masked protesters stayed behind.
In an apparent attempt to evade protesters Lam left the stadium well past midnight, some four hours after the event ended, local media reported.
By then, the crowd of hundreds of protesters had dwindled to a few dozen.
Of the 30 people chosen to speak throughout the evening, 24 openly criticized the government, two made neutral comments while four expressed sympathy for Lam’s administration.
But it is unclear what, if anything, Lam can offer.
Both she and Beijing have ruled out any further concessions to protesters, whose five demands include an independent inquiry into police conduct, an amnesty for more than 1,500 people arrested and fully free elections.
On Wednesday, a top Chinese envoy in the city described those demands as “political blackmail,” raising concerns that Lam has been given little wiggle room to de-escalate simmering public anger towards her administration and the police.
Throughout her appearance on Thursday Lam resisted making concrete commitments beyond continuing to listen to people and holding more town halls.
Police maintained a low presence near the venue but local media said 3,000 officers were on standby in case of clashes.
Riot police carrying large plastic shields were filmed carting supplies into the stadium ahead of the event, including boxes of tear gas.
Lam currently has the lowest approval ratings of any post-handover leader.
Public appearances by her and other senior administration officials in the last few months have frequently resulted in protests.
Last weekend, a cabinet member was besieged in his official car until riot police rescued him.
Hong Kong has seen years of rallies and unrest sparked by Beijing’s tightening grip on the semi-autonomous financial hub.
This summer’s unrest was ignited by a now-scrapped proposal to allow extraditions to the authoritarian mainland.
But it has since snowballed into a wider movement pushing for democracy and police accountability after Beijing and Lam took a hard line.
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.
The city is bracing itself for a fresh round of protests in coming days with Saturday marking five years since the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement kicked off and Tuesday being the 70th anniversary of communist China’s founding.