HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s embattled leader on Tuesday pleaded for order after days of escalating chaos, mass protests and violent street clashes that have put the Asian financial hub on edge.
In a news conference with combative reporters — a day after the city’s international airport was effectively shuttered by mass protests — the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, said that without the rule of law it would be impossible for Hong Kong’s residents to “continue to live in a peaceful manner.”
“The stability and well-being of seven million people are in jeopardy,” Mrs. Lam said, her voice breaking slightly. “Take a minute to think about that. Look at our city, our home. Do we really want to push our home to the abyss where it will be smashed into pieces?”
During street clashes this summer, the Hong Kong police have regularly fired tear gas, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds to disperse protesters on the streets, even in residential areas and crowded shopping districts.
“Why have you never condemned the police?” another asked.
“Sir, please do not interrupt,” one of Mrs. Lam’s officials said at one point, as reporters shouted questions while she was trying to speak.
Toward the end of the briefing, Mrs. Lam said that police operations are not determined by “someone like myself, who is outside the police,” and that officers on the ground had to make spot judgments.
“It’s not my choice to focus on the police, but all the questions have focused on the police,” she said.
Separately, protesters were expected to return to the Hong Kong airport on Tuesday afternoon to continue demonstrations that severely disrupted the transportation hub, one of the world’s busiest, on Monday. The airport’s website showed on Tuesday morning that more than 300 flights had already been canceled that day.
This summer’s protests in Hong Kong began in early June in opposition to legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party.
They have since morphed into a call for free elections, which largely do not exist in China, and spiraled into Hong Kong’s worst political crisis since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing, which views the unrest as a direct challenge to its authority of the semiautonomous Chinese territory, has warned the protesters to stand down and leaned on Hong Kong’s political and business elite to close ranks behind Mrs. Lam, a career civil servant.
Other issues have often loomed larger than the extradition bill in recent weeks, including the stalled promise of more direct elections, the use of force by the police against demonstrators and a call for Mrs. Lam to resign. But the stalled extradition bill still enrages protesters, and continues to fuel their civil disobedience.
Mrs. Lam has said the legislation is “dead,” but her administration has declined to fully withdraw it.
Asked by a Reuters reporter on Tuesday if she had the autonomy to withdraw the legislation, Mrs. Lam said: “This has been answered before on numerous occasions.”
“But you’ve avoided the question on numerous occasions,” the reporter said. There has been widespread speculation over to what extent China’s central government is influencing the Hong Kong government’s position on the issue.
Mrs. Lam has refused to meet with protesters or offer any concessions beyond saying she would shelve the extradition bill.
Moments before Mrs. Lam spoke on Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called on her to meet with protest leaders and “act on their legitimate grievances.”