Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam held the first of her promised “public dialogue” sessions at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium on Thursday.
The event did not go well for Lam, who was peppered with uncomfortable questions from skeptical and defiant audience members and then trapped inside the stadium for four hours as a huge protest rally blocked roads outside the venue in defiance of police orders to disperse.
The Hong Kong Free Press offered a sample of the questions Lam faced inside the stadium:
During the dialogue session, a man dressed in a black polo shirt and black mask gave a particularly short comment.
“We all know that you don’t call the shots, so I don’t have much to say,” he said. “You said you will listen to public opinion, but we have been speaking out for three months. If you haven’t heard anything over the past three months, how is it that you are really listening now?”
He asked Lam not to call him a friend. “I don’t have friends like you,” he said.
One of the participants told Lam that if she wished to know what young people were thinking, she could download the LIHKG app—a Reddit-like forum popular among protesters—and read the top posts for 15 minutes every day.
“You don’t have to pay anything. There is no need for you to deploy 3,000 police officers either,” he said, referring to the heavy police presence at the session.
Another woman asked Lam to consider why she was not invited to Beijing for the October 1 celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.
Many of the questions asked of Lam pertained to police brutality, which is a major complaint of the protest movement and the focus of one of its five core demands. When an audience member relatively sympathetic to Lam denounced the violence and vandalism carried out by some protesters, social media lit up with photos outing her as a police officer disguised in plain clothes. According to some reports, she used to be a police officer but no longer holds that position, a detail that probably will not mollify critics who think she was a plant.
The South China Morning Post counted almost half of the questions asked of Lam as related to police misconduct. Lam nevertheless stood her ground and refused to allow an independent investigation, at least not until Hong Kong’s IPCC police watchdog agency finishes its work “in a few months.”
“Police have become a political tool and there is no mechanism to monitor their operations. The IPCC is only a toothless tiger,” an audience member shot back, noting that police have not held accountable a single top official.
“Have you ever been sympathetic towards people who were tear-gassed or beaten by police? You only care about turnstiles in MTR stations which were vandalized. You have taught me, a naive person, that peaceful protests cannot make a difference,” said another, referring to the vandalism some protesters have conducted at Hong Kong railroad stations.
Lam did make one concession to the protest movement by announcing detainees would no longer be held at the notorious San Uk Ling Holding Center, where there have been numerous complaints of abuse. She was adamant that the rest of the protest movement’s demands will not be granted because they are not lawful.
The event reportedly concluded with fervent interest in signing up for Lam’s next public dialogue, which is not necessarily good news for the embattled chief executive. The South China Morning Post thought she looked overwhelmed, “shaken,” and emotional during the event, alternating between “angry aunt” and “punching bag.” One of the ministers appearing on stage with her burst into tears while the audience was hammering Lam.
If Lam’s goal was to defuse the protest movement by letting people vent their anger at her or to gain some credibility with disaffected citizens by demonstrating her courage, the town hall meeting may have fallen short of her expectations. At best, the attendees seemed to view her with pity as a hapless mouthpiece for the real power in Beijing.
“I just get angrier and more disappointed. She just kept repeating herself. She looks down on us Hongkongers, but looks up to Xi Jinping. We are not from the lower part of society. I am educated and I can think critically,” said one of the attendees, referring to China’s authoritarian Communist Party chairman Xi Jinping.
China’s state-run media celebrated Lam, dismissed her critics as rude and dishonest, and gave heroic coverage to pro-government participants in the town hall. China’s Global Times portrayed pro-government residents as a captive majority, ruthlessly oppressed by the vicious protest movement, that finally had a chance to make itself heard:
In a rare moment during the past few months that have silenced voices opposed to the violence, some residents took the chance on Thursday night to speak out against radicals.
Early in the session, participants burst into applause when a woman stood up and called for an investigation into members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, teachers, religious people who have fueled the protests. She spoke of the need to make changes to the education system and to take action against fake journalists and media organizations who smear the government and the police.
The People’s Daily of China thrashed the protesters as unreasonable “radicals” and separatists whose demand of universal suffrage is an effort to subvert the government so it can use Hong Kong to “infiltrate and undermine the mainland.”
“They make loud voices for democracy, but what they had done hindered Hong Kong’s democracy,” the People’s Daily charged.