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Hong Kong’s leader pleads for order in a city on edge

FILE — Riot police officers detain demonstrators during a protest in the Sha Tin area of Hong Kong, July 14. As anti-government demonstrations escalate in Hong Kong, each side is staking out increasingly polarized positions, making it difficult to find a path to compromise between the protesters and China‚Äôs ruling Communist Party. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)
August 13, 2019 09:22 am Updated: August 13, 2019 09:22 am

HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s embattled leader Tuesday pleaded for order after days of escalating chaos, mass protests and violent street clashes that have put the Asian financial hub on edge. In a news conference with combative reporters — a day after the city’s international airport was effectively shuttered by mass protests — the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, said that without the rule of law, it would be impossible for Hong Kong’s residents to “continue to live in a peaceful manner.” “The stability and well-being of 7 million people are in jeopardy,” Lam said, her voice breaking slightly. “Take a minute to think about that. Look at our city, our home. Do we really want to push our home to the abyss, where it will be smashed into pieces?” During street clashes this summer, Hong Kong police have regularly fired tear gas, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds to disperse protesters on the streets, even in residential areas and crowded shopping districts. On Sunday night, the police escalated their tactics against protesters by firing tear gas inside a subway station and chasing protesters down an escalator at another station. The authorities, for their part, accused protesters of attacking officers with gasoline bombs. On Tuesday, Lam was frequently interrupted by journalists who demanded an explantation for what protesters have called blatant police misconduct. She looked more visibly emotional than she has at other recent public appearances. “Will you apologize to the girl?” one reporter asked, referring to a woman who was hit in her right eye Sunday, apparently by a projectile fired by police officers, during the city’s 10th straight weekend of mass demonstrations. “Why have you never condemned the police?” another asked. “Sir, please do not interrupt,” one of Lam’s officials said at one point, as reporters shouted questions while she was trying to speak. Toward the end of the briefing, Lam said that police operations are not determined by “someone like myself, who is outside the police,” and that officers on the ground had to make spot judgments. “It’s not my choice to focus on the police, but all the questions have focused on the police,” she said. Separately, protesters were expected to return to the Hong Kong airport Tuesday afternoon to continue demonstrations that severely disrupted the transportation hub, one of the world’s busiest, on Monday. The airport’s website showed Tuesday morning that more than 300 flights had already been canceled that day. This summer’s protests in Hong Kong began in early June in opposition to legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party. They have since morphed into a call for free elections, which largely do not exist in China, and spiraled into Hong Kong’s worst political crisis since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Beijing, which views the unrest as a direct challenge to its authority of the semiautonomous Chinese territory, has warned the protesters to stand down and leaned on Hong Kong’s political and business elite to close ranks behind Lam, a career civil servant. Other issues have often loomed larger than the extradition bill in recent weeks, including the stalled promise of more direct elections, the use of force by the police against demonstrators and a call for Lam to resign. But the stalled extradition bill still enrages protesters, and continues to fuel their civil disobedience. Lam has said the legislation is “dead,” but her administration has declined to fully withdraw it. Asked by a Reuters reporter Tuesday if she had the autonomy to withdraw the legislation, Lam said: “This has been answered before on numerous occasions.” “But you’ve avoided the question on numerous occasions,” the reporter said. There has been widespread speculation over to what extent China’s central government is influencing the Hong Kong government’s position on the issue. Lam has refused to meet with protesters or offer any concessions beyond saying she would shelve the extradition bill. Moments before Lam spoke Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on her to meet with protest leaders and “act on their legitimate grievances.”

Austin Ramzy, Gillian Wong and Katherine Li contributed reporting. Elsie Chen contributed research.