Hong Kong‘s embattled leader Carrie Lam has denounced protesters who fought with police over the weekend as “rioters” and thrown her support behind the city’s beleaguered law enforcement officers amid continued mass demonstrations demanding her resignation.
A demonstration on Sunday in Hong Kong’s Sha Tin district was peaceful for most of the day, but fights broke out when police started clearing streets after nightfall. Some protesters retreated into a shopping complex where they and police hit each other with clubs and umbrellas.
More than 40 people were arrested during the clashes while 28 others sought emergency medical treatment, according to local police and health officials.
On Monday, Chief Executive Lam paid a hospital visit to the officers who were injured in the violence and expressed gratitude to them for safeguarding law and order in the semi-autonomous territory.
“They are committed, professional and have exercised restraint when they were being attacked by those whom I describe as ‘rioters’,” Lam told reporters.
She added that police and prosecutors will press charges following investigations into Sunday’s events.
Lam’s use of the word “rioters” will likely infuriate protesters, who have baulked at that description, accused police of using disproportionate force and demanded the designation be retracted.
Al Jazeera’s Jamela Alindogan, reporting from Hong Kong, described Lam’s statement as “a reaffirmation that there has been no change in her policy and approach concerning how to deal with this crisis”.
“This is essentially a trust issue; the protesters believe that her [Lam’s] interests are not focused on the welfare of the Hong Kong people but towards Beijing and mainland China in general,” Alindogan said.
“There won’t be an end to the current situation and people will continue to protest until real political reforms are in place,” she added.
Hong Kong has been rocked by a wave of protests since early June over a controversial proposed law which would allow the extradition of people to any jurisdiction in the world with which it currently has no existing formal agreement, including mainland China.
Opponents of the bill fear it could make residents of the city vulnerable to politically-motivated charges in China’s court system. They see the bill as part of a wider move by Beijing to scale back the freedoms Hong Kong enjoys under the so-called “one country, two systems” principle put in place as it was handed back to China by Britain in 1997.
Although the Hong Kong government suspended the proposed legislation amid the mass protests against it, with Lam declaring it “dead”, it has refused to officially retract it.
Meanwhile, thousands of people have continued to take to the streets to call for greater government accountability and democratic reforms.
While largely peaceful, the protests have at times devolved into clashes between protesters and police, who have used pepper spray, bean bag rounds, rubber bullets and tear gas to quell the unrest.
The protesters, in turn, have called for police to be held responsible for their tactics. Activists have also accused Lam of ignoring public sentiment and demanded her resignation.
“Although I am currently encountering a huge difficulty, I have publicly stressed many times that I will continue to still bear my responsibility and have the passion for continuing my job until the end of my term,” Lam said on Monday.
Lam’s office also denied some weekend media reports that she had told Chinese leaders in Beijing she was prepared to resign, but had been rejected.
“The chief executive has not tendered any resignation,” her office said.
Separately on Monday, various members of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing majority 70-seat Legislative Council held news conferences to address the city’s latest incidence of unrest.
“Both sides have to come out and establish communication channels,” said pro-Beijing legislator Starry Lee, the chairperson of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.
“I think [Lam] and also the bureau responsible should come out and respond to this issue … Otherwise, Hong Kong will be the loser and no Hong Kong person wants to see this happen again and again,” she added.
Legislator Claudia Mo, a member of the pan-democracy Camp, described the current tumult as “the biggest political and governance crisis Hong Kong has ever faced”.
“The whole of Hong Kong found it difficult to cope,” Mo said. “We urge once again Carrie Lam to come out and face the people.”
Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong echoed Mo’s call, accusing Lam of failing to seek “reconciliation” and instead turning “to the police for support, by initiating hatred and bloodshed”.
“We can’t help asking for an end to power abuse and police abuse. Reform of the system is the only way to solve the current and forthcoming governance crises. Act now Carrie Lam before it’s too late,” Wong said in a series of posts on Twitter.