Pro-democracy lawmakers forced the adjournment Wednesday of the annual policy address by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam. It was the isolated leader’s first appearance in the newly reopened legislature, refurbished to the tune of $5 million after protesters ransacked it in July.
Legislative Council president Andrew Leung adjourned the meeting barely minutes after it had begun, when opposition legislators started chanting “Carrie Lam step down!” and used a projector to beam slogans onto the chamber wall. Several legislators were ejected from the chamber.
Lam was instead forced to deliver her speech via a video broadcast 90 minutes later—the first time in Hong Kong’s history that a leader has had to resort to such a measure. In her address, she warned that “any acts that advocate Hong Kong’s independence and threaten the country’s sovereignty, security and development interests will not be tolerated,” before going on to outline several initiatives to increase the supply of affordable housing, the lack of which has helped fuel the raging social discontent behind five months of anti-government protest.
“So long as Hong Kong remains impeded by unresolved disputes, ongoing violence, confrontation and discord, our city cannot embark on the road to reconciliation and people will lose faith in the future,” Lam said. “We have to put aside differences and stop attacking each other.”
Speaking to reporters after the meeting’s adjournment, democratic lawmaker Tanya Chan said: “I really urge [Lam], if she can’t govern Hong Kong, and has no determination to govern Hong Kong, and no ability or even capability of administrating Hong Kong, to please step down. This is the only way we can have a good future, the only way Hong Kong can go forward. Please, please Carrie Lam, please don’t let us suffer anymore. Please go.”
Legislator Claudia Mo accused Lam of being “a puppet on strings, being played by Beijing,” while lawmaker Alvin Yeung told reporters: “What leader, in reading out a policy report, can only do it on TV? It is those who have failed, those who cannot face the public.”
Pro-Beijing lawmakers strongly condemned the disruptions. “The behavior of my colleagues in disrupting the delivery of the policy address by the chief executive is anti-democratic and oppressive of the rights of the chief executive, and the rights and freedoms of myself and colleagues who want to listen to the policy address,” Legislative Council member Regina Ip said at a press conference. “Nothing can justify that sort of behavior.”
Establishment politicians also criticized the content of Lam’s address. “On the subject of ending violence, we hoped that the government would have concrete policies and measures so that people can trust that order in society can be restored, instead of just asking people to be sensible and peaceful,” Starry Lee, head of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, told media. “But the policy address did not have any practical, concrete response.”
Bernard Chan, the convenor of the Executive Council, Hong Kong’s de facto cabinet, defended Lam’s policy proposals, saying that the chief executive had conducted “numerous consultation sessions” in the run-up to the address in order to tackle the “deep-seated problems” of the territory.
“This is a clear sign that the government is keen to listen to the views from different sectors and solve these deep-seated problems together with the community,” he said in an emailed statement to TIME.
Worsening political climate
“The deep-rooted problem is that power lies in the hands of a small group of people, and that power is abused,” said longtime dissident and former legislator Leung Kwok-hung to reporters earlier in the day.
He repeated a demand for Lam to hold an independent probe into alleged police brutality, calling it “the most important thing at this moment.” The demand was echoed by prominent activist Joshua Wong, who cited a survey showing that 88 percent of Hongkongers wanted such an inquiry. “These are the voices that she, that the government, is ignoring,” he told TIME.
The fiasco at the legislature comes at a time of sky-high political tensions in Hong Kong. More than 2,500 people have been arrested, and 1,100 injured, since protests erupted over a controversial, but now withdrawn, extradition bill in June. Early demonstrations against the bill quickly escalated into a general rebellion against Lam’s Beijing-backed administration. Many protesters are demanding full democracy and self-determination or even independence for the former British possession, which was retroceded to China in 1997 after 156 years of colonial rule.
In recent weeks, protesters have become increasingly violent, smashing government offices and mainland-Chinese owned shops, paralyzing the city with sustained attacks on the subway system, and detonating, police say, an improvised explosive device. Police arrested two men Wednesday at an apartment where explosives were found.
A high school student has also been arrested for slashing a policeman on the neck with a box cutter during a protest, and police have wounded two teenage protesters in separate shootings.
In an attempt to quell the protests, the government two weeks ago invoked emergency powers to ban the wearing of masks at public gatherings, but the measure has sparked even greater fury.
Meanwhile, Beijing said Wednesday it will respond forcefully if the U.S. Congress passes the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. The measure allows for sanctions on Hong Kong officials who are judged to be working against the enclave’s “fundamental freedoms and autonomy.”
“This kind of behavior has grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs and is openly adding support to the opposition forces and radical forces in Hong Kong,” an official at the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office reportedly stated.
Lam’s administration voiced its “regret” at the passage of the act through the House of Representatives.
China’s President Xi Jinping has bluntly threatened Hong Kong’s burgeoning separatist movement, saying, “Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones. And any external forces backing such attempts at dividing China will be deemed by the Chinese people as pipe-dreaming.”
Lam has also repeatedly stated that she is unable to grant greater political freedom to Hong Kong’s 7.4 million people, who currently do not have the right to elect their leader under the territory’s constitution. (Lam, like her predecessors, was selected by a so-called “election committee” of 1,200 mostly pro-establishment figures.)
“As far as democracy is concerned, this is an extremely complicated subject for which we have to fulfill the constitutional requirements,” Lam said at a press conference after today’s debacle. “For my policy address to totally ignore those constitutional requirements, and undertake to provide certain forms of universal suffrage for the people of Hong Kong, is not a responsible act.”
—With reporting by Hillary Leung / Hong Kong