Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) yesterday warned that more than two months of pro-democracy demonstrations were causing economic chaos in the territory, but ruled out making concessions to “silence the violent protesters.”
The embattled leader met with business leaders as thousands of pro-democracy activists staged a sit-in at Hong Kong International Airport hoping to win international support for their movement.
Lam, whose support for a bill to allow extradition to China sparked the crisis, warned that the economic effects of the unrest threatened to be worse than the 2003 SARS outbreak in the financial hub.
“Compared to the economic downturn caused by SARS that we handled previously, which caused an economic storm, the situation this time is more severe,” she told an abruptly organized news conference.
“In other words, the economic recovery will take a very long time,” she added.
The private sector — the tourism industry in particular — has raised concerns about the economic effects of the ongoing protests on the territory, with travel agencies reporting drops of up to 50 percent in group tour bookings and the Hong Kong Tourism Board warning of double-digit declines in visitor arrivals in the second half of last month.
Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific (國泰航空) has also warned that inbound bookings are down.
The Chinese Civil Aviation Administration yesterday issued a major safety alert to Cathay Pacific, demanding that the carrier suspend personnel who have engaged in and supported the protests from working flights to China from today.
Crew who have engaged in the protests pose a threat to aviation safety in China, it said in a statement on its Web site.
Protesters have continued to stage almost daily rallies that have seen increasingly violent confrontations with police, prompting several nations to issue travel warnings to their citizens.
The protests began two months ago over the controversial extradition bill, but have morphed into a broader movement demanding democratic reforms.
Lam has refused to cave in to the demands, which include a call for the direct election of the territory’s chief executive, who is currently chosen by Beijing.
“As far as [the] political solution is concerned, I don’t think we should just sort of make concessions in order to silence the violent protesters,” Lam said.
“We should do what is right for Hong Kong, and at this moment, what is right for Hong Kong ... is to stop the violence and to say ‘no’ to the chaotic situation that Hong Kong has experienced in the last few weeks so that we can move on,” she added.
Activists at the sit-in in the airport’s arrivals hall held up signs in Chinese and English condemning police violence.
“No rioters, only tyranny,” the demonstrators chanted as they began a three-day action.
“Save Hong Kong from tyranny and police brutality!” read one sign.
Protesters have staged increasingly inventive rallies across Hong Kong and brought out supporters ranging from families to lawyers in a bid to show the broad backing for their demands.
However, the demonstrations have also increasingly descended into violence, with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets, and protesters hurling bricks and bottles.
The sit-in is the second time the demonstrators have taken their message to the busy travel hub, hoping to garner support from international arrivals.
“Ask me about Hong Kong” read signs in different languages attached to the sleeves of some of the protesters.
“We want to tell the passengers what’s happening in Hong Kong,” 16-year-old student Charlotte Au said.
Some travelers arriving at the airport stopped to take photographs or look at leaflets being handed out by the demonstrators. Others offered protesters a thumbs-up.
Clara Boudehen, visiting from France, said that she was “very impressed” by the rally.
“Our democracy is not absolute, we have to fight for it,” she said. “To see the population fight for democracy is very important.”
Monica Yoon Hee Jung, who had just arrived from South Korea, said that she had been slightly nervous about her trip.
“When I see the rally here, it is really peaceful. They are not aggressive at all. I feel they are trying to show their real heart. Very genuine,” she said.
Further protests are planned across Hong Kong over the weekend, with fears that new confrontations between police and demonstrators are possible. Hundreds of people have already been arrested in the unrest.
The weeks of demonstrations have posed the biggest threat to Beijing’s authority since Hong Kong’s handover from Britain in 1997.
Additional reporting by Reuters
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