Hong Kong’s embattled leader Carrie Lam will hold her first talks with members of the public on Thursday in a bid to resolve a political crisis that has fuelled nearly four months of sometimes violent protests and plunged the city into chaos.
Beijing-backed Lam will hold a dialogue with 150 members of the community, with each participant given around three minutes to express their views, city authorities have said.
Tight security is expected around the venue in the commercial and nightlife district of Wan Chai, where some schools and businesses planned to close early ahead of the meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. local time.
“Deep wounds have been opened in our society. These will take time to heal,” Lam said in an opinion piece in the New York Times ahead of the talks.
“But it remains this government’s hope that conversation will triumph over conflict and that through its actions, calm can be restored and trust can be rebuilt within the community,” she added.
What started as protests over a now-shelved extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial have evolved into broader calls for greater democracy, among other demands.
While there have been violent incidents in parts of the former British colony over the last three months, life for many people goes on as normal most of the time.
The protests have taken a heavy toll on some businesses as tourists stay away. Cathay Pacific, the city’s flagship carrier, has been the biggest corporate casualty after China demanded it suspend staff involved in the protests.
Cathay CEO Rupert Hogg and Chairman John Slosar have since left the company.
Rail operator MTR Corp. has also suffered, with passenger numbers on the high-speed rail link to mainland China plunging 30 per cent to 1.14 million people in August from July.
Passengers on the Airport Express, which links the city to the international airport where protesters have disrupted operations, were down 10 per cent over the same period to 1.3 million people.
MTR has at times suspended city rail services during the protests, preventing some demonstrators from gathering and making it a target of attack, with protesters vandalizing stations and setting fires near some exits.
The rail operator halted services at Sha Tin station on Wednesday night after protesters vandalized facilities there for a second time since the weekend.
Train services resumed on Thursday.
The protesters are also angry about what they see as creeping Chinese interference in Hong Kong, which returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula intended to guarantee freedoms that are not enjoyed on the mainland.
China says it is committed to the arrangement and denies meddling. It has accused foreign governments including the United States and Britain of inciting the unrest.
The Chinese-ruled territory is on edge ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic on Oct. 1, with authorities eager to avoid scenes that could embarrass the central government in Beijing.
The Asian financial hub also marks the fifth anniversary this weekend of the start of the “Umbrella” protests, a series of pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 that failed to wrestle concessions from Beijing.