Anti-extradition bill protesters march to demand democracy and political reforms, in Hong Kong, China August 18, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone SiuAnti-extradition bill protesters march to demand democracy and political reforms, in Hong Kong, China August 18, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Hong Kong leader sees ‘way out’ of chaos through dialogue

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday she hoped a peaceful weekend anti-government protest was the start of an effort to restore calm and that talks with non-violent protesters would provide “a way out” for the Chinese-ruled city.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters rallied peacefully in torrential rain on Sunday in the eleventh week of what have been often violent demonstrations.

“I sincerely hope that this was the beginning of society returning to peace and staying away from violence,” Lam said.

Anger erupted in June over a now-suspended bill that would allow criminal suspects in the former British colony to be extradited to mainland China for trial.

The unrest has been fueled by broader worries about the erosion of freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula put in place after Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, including an independent judiciary and the right to protest.

The protests have prompted sharp reactions from Beijing, which has accused foreign countries, including the United States, of fomenting unrest in the territory. China has also sent clear warning that forceful intervention is possible, with paramilitary forces holding drills in neighboring Shenzhen.

Sunday’s protest turnout, which organizers put at 1.7 million, showed that the movement still has widespread support despite chaotic scenes last week when protesters occupied the airport.

Aside from seeking Lam’s resignation, demonstrators have five demands – complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, a halt to descriptions of the protests as “rioting”, a waiver of charges against those arrested, an independent inquiry and resumption of political reform.

“The bill is dead,” Lam told Tuesday’s news briefing. “There is no plan to revive the bill, especially in light of the public concerns.

Police have been criticized for using increasingly aggressive tactics to break up demonstrations but there was a minimal police presence on Sunday and no arrests were made. More than 700 people have been arrested since June.

Lam said the police watchdog had set up a task force to investigate complaints.

China’s State Council called on Monday for greater development of the southern city of Shenzhen and integration of its culture and economy with neighboring Hong Kong and Macau, a former Portuguese-run enclave that returned to China in 1999.

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