Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Friday measures announced this week to help restore order in the Chinese-ruled city were a first step as thousands gathered outside a subway station in renewed protest after months of sometimes violent unrest.
The crowds are expected to swell into the night, as the Asian financial hub braces for weekend demonstrations aiming to disrupt transport links to the airport after Lam’s withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill failed to appease some activists.
The airport announced that only passengers with tickets would be allowed to use the Airport Express train service on Saturday, boarding in downtown Hong Kong. The train would not stop en route, on the Kowloon peninsula. Bus services could also be hit, it said.
The measures are aimed at avoiding the chaos of last weekend, when protesters blocked airport approach roads, threw debris on the train track and trashed the MTR subway station in the nearby new town of Tung Chung in running clashes with police.
“The four actions are aimed at putting one step forward in helping Hong Kong to get out of the dilemma,” Lam told reporters during a trip to China’s southern region of Guangxi. “We can’t stop the violence immediately.”
Lam on Wednesday withdrew a controversial extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial in courts controlled by its ruling Communist Party and announced three other measures to help ease the crisis, including a dialogue with the people.
Global credit rating agency Fitch Ratings on Friday downgraded Hong Kong’s long-term foreign currency issuer default rating to “AA” from “AA+”.
Fitch said it expects that public discontent is likely to persist despite the concessions to certain protester demands.
Demonstrations, sometimes violent, have gripped the former British colony for three months, at times paralysing parts of the city amid running street battles between protesters and police whose violence has drawn international attention. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue of Hong Kong with Chinese premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, saying a peaceful solution was needed.
“I stressed that the rights and freedoms for (Hong Kong) citizens have to be granted,” Merkel said.
‘RETURN TO ORDER’
Li told a news conference with Merkel “the Chinese government unswervingly safeguards ‘one country, two systems’ and ‘Hong Kong people govern Hong Kong people'”.
Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” formula which guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent judiciary and the right to protests – hence people’s anger at the extradition bill.
Many Hong Kong residents fear Beijing is eroding that autonomy.
China denies the accusation of meddling and says Hong Kong is its internal affair. It has denounced the protests, warning of the damage to the economy and the possible use of force to quell the unrest.
Beijing supported the territory’s government “to end the violence and chaos in accordance with the law, to return to order, which is to safeguard Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability”, Li added.
Many protesters have pledged to fight on despite the withdrawal of the extradition bill, saying the concession was too little, too late.
Several activists and pro-democracy groups say they will not give up on their demands, with rallies planned on Friday evening at sites across the city such as subway stations and near government headquarters.
Hundreds gathered at Prince Edward station, where police fired beanbag guns and used pepper spray on Tuesday to clear demonstrators.
Apart from withdrawing the bill and releasing those arrested for violence, they also want an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, retraction of the word “riot” to describe rallies and the right for Hong Kong people to choose their own leaders.
The protests present Chinese President Xi Jinping with his greatest popular challenge since he came to power in 2012.
Authorities also say the turmoil has weighed on the economy, which faces its first recession in a decade. There is evidence some funds are being moved to rival financial centres, such as Singapore.