Asia Pacific / Politics

Hong Kong leader backs police use of force as protesters plan 'illegal' march

Reuters, AP

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam took to the airwaves on Saturday to back the use of force by police ahead of a major anti-government march planned this weekend in the Chinese-ruled city, which has been battered by months of violent protests.

Following a week of relative calm, Sunday’s march will test the strength of the pro-democracy movement. Campaigners vowed it would go ahead despite police ruling the rally illegal.

In the past, thousands of people have defied police and staged mass rallies without permission, often peaceful at the start but becoming violent at night.

The trigger for unrest in Hong Kong had been a now-withdrawn proposal to allow extradition to mainland China, as well as Taiwan and Macau. The case of a Hong Kong man accused of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan before fleeing back to the city was held up as an example of why it was needed.

Late Friday the man, Chan Tong-kai, who is jailed in Hong Kong for money laundering, wrote to Lam saying he would “surrender himself to Taiwan” over his alleged involvement in the case upon his release, which could be as soon as next week.

Lam said in an interview on Saturday with broadcaster RTHK that it was a relief as it could bring an end to the case.

She also said that police had used appropriate force in handling the protests, and were responding to protesters’ violence, amid criticism of heavy-handed tactics.

More than 2,600 people have been arrested since the protests escalated in June.

Protesters’ demands have, since then, swelled far beyond opposing the extradition bill, to take in broader concerns that Beijing is eroding freedoms granted when Britain handed the city back to China in 1997.

China denies the accusation and has blamed foreign nations such as the United States and Britain for inciting the unrest.

The crisis in the Chinese-ruled city is the worst since the handover and poses the biggest popular challenge to China’s President Xi Jinping since he took power.

Police have refused permission for Sunday’s march citing risks of violence and vandalism, which has increased in recent weeks as protesters dressed in black ninjalike outfits have torched metro stations and Chinese banks and shops.

Rights group Human Rights Watch said the police move appeared to be aimed at dissuading people from attending.

Demonstrations on Friday were calm, with protesters donning cartoon character masks that mocked China’s leaders while forming human chains in defiance of a ban on face coverings at public assemblies.

Gathering along the city’s subway lines Friday night, many protest supporters masqueraded as Winnie the Pooh or Guy Fawkes. They help up their phone lights and chanted slogans calling for a “revolution of our times” — a battle cry of the 5-month-long movement that has shaken the semi-autonomous Chinese city with violent confrontations between protesters and police.

Chinese internet users have joked that Chinese President Xi Jinping resembles the talking bear, leading the country’s censors to scrub online references to the character. Fawkes masks have come to represent anti-government protests around the world.

The protesters were taking a lighthearted approach to oppose the government’s decision this month to invoke colonial-era emergency regulations banning face masks at rallies as it struggles to contain the chaotic protests.

Lam this week outright rejected two of the protesters’ five core demands: universal suffrage and amnesty for those charged during the demonstrations, saying the latter would be illegal and the former was beyond her power.

Instead she has sought to quell the crisis with plans to improve housing supply and ease cost-of-living pressures.

The atmosphere in the city remains tense.

Prominent rights activist Jimmy Sham was brutally beaten by four men wielding hammers and knives during the week, a move pro-democracy lawmakers said was meant to intimidate protesters and incite violence ahead of Sunday’s planned march.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the city’s de-facto central bank, said Saturday that some cash machines will be out of service temporarily, owing to vandalism or to safety considerations.

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