HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said Tuesday she doesn’t expect a town hall meeting this week will find answers to the months-long pro-democracy protests but hopes it will be a step forward in the “long journey” to reconciliation.
Lam said she is encouraged that more than 20,000 people have signed up for Thursday’s community dialogue, out of which only 150 will be selected randomly. It will be the first such meeting since the protests started in early June.
The Beijing-backed leader is hoping to tone down emotions amid fears that violence could spike further with more protests planned this weekend ahead of Oct. 1 celebrations of the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s 70th year in power.
The unrest was sparked by an extradition bill that has since been withdrawn, but protesters have widened their demands to include direct elections for the city’s leaders and police accountability.
Lam said there is no agenda for the town hall, which is meant as an open platform for the public to vent its complaints and find a way out of the conflict. She said the two-hour session will be considered a success if the dialogue is peaceful with a frank and candid exchange of views.
“It would not be possible for a consensus to be reached after all these tensions in society that we have seen,” Lam said at a news conference. “To me, this is one step forward. It will be a long journey to achieve reconciliation in society, let alone to return to the more normal Hong Kong that we are all very familiar with.”
Security is expected to be tight at the town hall meeting, which will be held at a stadium in Hong Kong’s Wan Chai neighborhood. Participants will be banned from bringing items including umbrellas, gas masks or helmets — tools used by protesters.
Lam acknowledged she and her colleagues might not be welcomed by the public. On Sunday, police had to rescue Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip after an angry crowd surrounded his car as he was leaving a public event.
“If our reaching out is a source of major tension, then we have to think twice whether we should do that,” Lam said.
More than 1,500 people have been arrested since the protests started. The demonstrations, which have included peaceful human chains and mass singing in malls, usually peak during weekends and turn violent late in the day, with protesters setting street fires and vandalizing public utilities, causing police to fire tear gas and water cannons.
This past weekend, some protesters also trampled and burned Chinese flags.
Lam backed Hong Kong’s police force amid public criticism of its use of force, saying it was “quite remarkable” by international standards that no one has died in the protests.
“You ask me when that sort of restraint will disappear, I really can’t tell you,” she said, reiterating her call for violence to stop.
Many Hong Kong residents fear Beijing is eroding the city’s rights and freedoms under a “one country, two systems” framework introduced when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
The Hong Kong government has called off an annual Oct. 1 fireworks display. Local media reported that guests at the National Day reception will stay indoors to watch the flag-raising ceremony at a waterfront square.
Pro-Beijing lawmaker Michael Tien warned of “unprecedented violence” on Oct. 1 with possible bloodshed, and said Beijing is prepared for “very ugly scenes.”
He told Radio Television Hong Kong that Beijing has determined that only Chinese military intervention can quell the unrest but has decided to let the protests continue to “show the whole world how committed and sincere they are to the one country, two systems” policy.
Separately, the world’s top brewer, AB InBev, announced Tuesday it will price its Asian Budweiser initial public offering at 27 Hong Kong dollars ($3.44) and will enlarge its offering size to 1.45 billion shares, from 1.3 million earlier, to meet demand.
This will raise about 39.2 billion Hong Kong dollars ($5 billion), making it the biggest IPO in the city this year in a boost to the government’s morale amid the unrest.
Associated Press writer Eileen Ng in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.