Hong Kong, China – Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam was forced to abandon her annual policy address to the semi-autonomous city’s Legislative Council (LegCo) moments after she began to speak, amid heckling from a group of pro-democracy politicians that forced the entire session to be adjourned.
In a speech eventually delivered in a video that had been pre-recorded, Lam detailed a series of largely economic measures on housing, student grants and transport costs.
The Beijing-backed chief executive is trying to restore confidence in her government amid four months of increasingly violent mass protests that were triggered by a controversial extradition bill, but have expanded to include calls for more democracy.
She gave no ground to the protesters in the speech.
“I firmly believe that Hong Kong will be able to ride out this storm and move on,” she said.
In a statement after the session was suspended, democratic politicians, some of whom held placards showing Lam with blood on her hands, said that Lam was unfit to rule Hong Kong and had no grounds to govern.
“In these circumstances it’s futile to pretend things will go back to normal,” said Dennis Kwok from the pan-democratic camp of LegCo.
“She should step down because it’s clear she can’t govern Hong Kong.”
LegCo president Andrew Leung adjourned the session after four of the rowdiest legislators refused his order to leave.
While the Hong Kong government has identified economic inequity as a major driver of discontent in the city of seven million people, analysts said such initiatives were unlikely to placate the protesters.
“Here the government is catering to its base,” said Stephen Chiu, a sociologist at the Education University of Hong Kong who has researched the city’s inequality and social movements.
“As long as they leave the protesters’ demands unaddressed, the storm won’t pass.”
Hong Kong has been engulfed in anti-government protests since early June, triggered by an extradition bill that would have allowed accused individuals to be sent to mainland China for trial.
After Lam’s speech, Secretary for Security John Lee was scheduled to formally withdraw the legislation. It was not clear when or whether the proceeedings would resume following the morning’s chaos.
Lam announced she would withdraw the bill in early September, but it was too late for many protesters and has failed to ease the tension in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, which is enduring its worst political tumult in more than a half-century.
Public anger has been fuelled by the government’s refusal to address protesters’ five demands.
As well as the extradition bill’s withdrawal, the protesters are calling for an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality in suppressing the protests, an amnesty for all those charged with offences resulting from their participation in the protests, and a retraction of police claims that protesters are guilty of rioting.
A ban on face coverings, which protect protesters from tear gas but also make them difficult to identify, was introduced with colonial-era emergency powers, bypassing LegCo, and has only sent more demonstrators onto the streets.
Outside the legislature, a dozen protesters, mostly from a political party allied with the pan-dems, waved banners and flyers demanding the mask ban be lifted.
Security was extremely tight after hundreds of protesters stormed the building in early July and vandalised the main conference chamber. The damage cut short the last session by three weeks and forced the new session to be delayed by a week.
Kwok said the pro-democracy legislators wanted to concentrate on making sure all the protesters’ demands were met, shouting “Five demands, not one less,” as Lam entered the chamber for her address.
Once Lam stood up to start her speech, they projected the slogan onto the wall behind her.
In four months of protests, police have arrested close to 2,500 people and charged nearly 500. About 750 are under the age of 18.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” framework, which guarantees Hong Kong people rights and freedoms largely absent in mainland China.
Lam did not address the “the elephant in the room” by offering further compromises in an attempt to put to rest the political storm, but stressed the government was committed to “one country, two systems”.
She noted that there had been more than 400 protests in the past four months and that more than 1,100 people had been injured, and that the continuing violence risked damaging the city’s “core values”.
But with the debacle in LegCo underlining the depth of Hong Kong’s divisions, economic relief measures are unlikely to convince the protesters to call off their campaign.
“In survey after survey we’ve found that their motivation to protest lies not in the lack of affordable housing or job prospects, but in their sense of injustice,” the Education University of Hong Kong’s Chiu told Al Jazeera.
“They see our society as fundamentally unjust.”