(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam said her government could handle growing violence without a military intervention by Beijing, but didn’t rule out seeking China’s help or invoking further emergency measures.
“I still strongly feel that we should find the solution ourselves,” Lam told reporters Tuesday, before a meeting of the city’s Executive Council. “That’s also the position of the central government that Hong Kong should tackle the problem on our own. But if the situation becomes so bad, then no option should be ruled out, if we want Hong Kong to at least have another chance.”
Lam condemned the weekend’s violence and attacks on businesses, after demonstrators vandalized shops and paralyzed the city’s transit system in some of the worst violence of the past four months. The chaos followed Lam’s decision to ban protesters from wearing masks under the colonial-era Emergency Regulations Ordinance that could also be used to detain and arrest protesters and censor publications.
Although the weekend’s events showed that protesters were still able to draw tens of thousands of people into the streets, four months of tear gas, vandalism and transit network disruption are beginning to weigh on the financial hub. There’s little prospect of a break through, with Lam granting calls for tougher measures, days after using a town hall-style meeting to take the blame for the “entire unrest.”
Police said Tuesday they had arrested 77 people in relation to suspected violations of the mask ban since it took effect on Oct. 5.
Lam has promised measures in her annual policy address next week to ease housing and income pressures that officials believe helped turn opposition to her extradition legislation into a broader democracy movement. But she acknowledged Tuesday that she might not be able to deliver the speech in the Legislative Council for fear the chamber, which was ransacked by protesters on July 1, could again be besieged.
“She has handled the situation very badly,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Centre for China Studies. “The draconian nature of the invocation of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance contradicts the earlier atmosphere of reconciliation promoted by that town hall meeting.”
Only 15% of respondents expressed confidence in the chief executive in a new poll, down 3 percentage points from mid-September, the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute said Tuesday. Its latest survey was taken between Sept. 30 and Oct. 3 -- before the government moved to ban face masks.
The fierce clashes -- and the specter of Beijing deploying its People’s Liberation Army troops in the city -- have drawn condemnation from officials from the U.S., the U.K. and others. Congress is considering bipartisan legislation that would establish annual reviews to determine whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomy to justify continuing its special trading status.
On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump warned Beijing that trade talks between the two sides could suffer if the country does anything “bad” to try and end protests in Hong Kong. “They have to do that in a peaceful manner,” he told reporters at the White House.
Lam said that her visit to Beijing for China’s National Day parade on Oct. 1 had been brief and didn’t include any business meetings with central government officials. No such discussions or interactions have taken place,” she said.
Hong Kong’s visitor arrivals fell by more than half from Oct. 1-6, a “golden week” when mainland tourists usually flood the city’s low-tax shops during the long holiday. Instead, banks, supermarkets, malls and train stations closed as protesters clashed with police and vandalized mainland-linked businesses across the city.
Lam pledged support to affected industries and called for developers and store owners to provide relief. She didn’t rule out the possibility of further measures under the emergency law, which was last used more than a half century ago to put down leftist riots, to address “such a changing situation.”
“What I can assure you is the government will take a very serious view and very careful assessment before the ERO is to be invoked again,” Lam said.
The dramatic scenes last weekend -- including the shooting of a second protester in less than a week -- were the latest in months of demonstrations broke out in opposition to Lam’s now-scrapped legislation that would’ve allowed extraditions to mainland China. The protests have morphed into the most serious challenge to Beijing’s rule since Hong Kong returned to Chinese control in 1997.
While many blame Lam, who’s approval rating has been stuck near record lows for months, the protesters are also testing the patience of more moderate supporters, such as retail workers and investors whose lives have been increasing affected by the chaos.
“People’s normal lifestyle have been disrupted and there are many people who have lost money,” said Willy Lam. “It’s possible that this critical juncture has happened -- and that is the radical fringe overall has lost support of the support of the general public.”
(Updates with arrests from fifth paragraph)
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