By Jessie Pang and Clare Jim
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam promised to focus on housing and jobs to try to end three months of sometimes violent unrest, as pro-democracy demonstrators headed for the hills on Friday for a series of lantern-carrying Mid-Autumn Festival human chains.
Lam, who said she caused “unforgivable havoc” by igniting the crisis and would quit if she had the choice, said in a Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) post her government would increase the supply of housing in the Chinese-ruled city.
“Housing and people’s livelihoods are the main priorities,” Lam said. “The government will add to housing supply measures which will be continuously put in place and not missed.”
The spark for the protests was a now-withdrawn extradition bill and concern that Beijing is eroding civil liberties, but many young protesters are also angry at sky-high living costs and a lack of job prospects.
Hong Kong has some of the world’s most expensive real estate and many young people say the city’s housing policy is unfair, benefiting the rich while forcing them to live with their parents or rent “shoe box” apartments at exorbitant prices.
Lam’s comments came as activists plan the latest in a series of protests in the former British colony, which is grappling with its biggest political crisis in decades.
The demonstrations started in June in response to a bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts, but have broadened into calls for democracy.
Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland – including a much-cherished independent legal system.
At lunch on Friday, hundreds of pro-Beijing supporters packed into a shopping mall waving China flags and singing the Chinese national anthem.
Later on Friday, Mid-Autumn Festival, demonstrators were to carry lanterns and form human chains on the scenic Victoria Peak, popular with mainland tour groups, and on Lion Rock, separating the New Territories from the Kowloon peninsula.
Protesters were also to gather with lanterns on the top of Tai Tung Shan on the offshore island of Lantau.
Sit-ins at shopping malls are also planned over the weekend.
Activists also plan to gather outside the British consulate on Sunday to demand that China honors the Sino-British Joint Declaration that was signed in 1984, laying out the former British colony’s post-1997 future.
China says Hong Kong is now its internal affair. It denies meddling in Hong Kong and has accused the United States, Britain and others of fomenting the unrest.
Britain says it has a legal responsibility to ensure China abides by its obligations under the Joint Declaration.
Police have responded to violence with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, water cannon and baton charges, as well as firing several live shots in the air, prompting complaints of excessive force.
Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing said on Friday he deeply regretted that his recent comments about the protests were misrepresented and reiterated that any actions that violate the rule of law cannot be tolerated.
Li’s statement came after China’s Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission published an article on social media accusing the tycoon of “harboring criminality” after he called on the authorities to offer young people an olive branch amid the protests.
Li said through his spokesperson in a statement he would always accept criticism, but most importantly “lenience is not the same as indulgence, (and) is not the same as disregarding legal procedures”.
Hong Kong is facing its first recession in a decade as a result of the protests. A surge in migration applications suggests more locals are making plans to leave.
China has called on its biggest state firms to take a more active role in Hong Kong, including stepping up investment and asserting more control over companies.
More than 80% of the 120 businesses surveyed by the American Chamber of Commerce in Singapore said the protests had affected their decision in investing in Hong Kong in the future. Only 1% had relocated business functions out of Hong Kong, while 23% said any such relocation plans were still under consideration.
Multiple Hong Kong events and conferences have been canceled and the number of visitors plunged 40 percent in August. The city’s premier women’s tennis event scheduled for October has been postponed.
Organizers also called off the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Matilda the Musical”, due to run from Sept. 20 to Oct. 20.
The Fraser Institute, an independent Canadian public policy research organization, said Hong Kong was one of the most economically free jurisdictions in the world but “interference from China including the violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests – severely threatens Hong Kong’s rule of law”.
Hong Kong’s government said the comments were “entirely ungrounded and not borne out by objective facts”, with human rights and freedom fully protected.