Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said on Tuesday the city’s recovery from protests that have swept the Asian financial hub could take a long time and that she would be responsible for rebuilding its economy “after the violence eases”.
Her comments followed serious developments in the growing crisis over the past week. Beijing said on Monday the protests had begun to show “sprouts of terrorism”, and the city’s airport was closed in an unprecedented move that forced hundreds of flight cancellations.
As she spoke to reporters, her voice cracking with emotion at one point, Hong Kong's Hang Seng index .HSI fell by more than 1% to its lowest level since Jan. 4. The index was down around 1.5% soon after.
She said violence by protesters had pushed Hong Kong into “a state of panic and chaos”.
“Hong Kong, as an open, free, very tolerant, economically stable city will see severe wounds ... The recovery may take a long time,” she said.
The increasingly violent demonstrations have plunged the Chinese-ruled territory into its most serious crisis in decades, presenting Chinese leader Xi Jinping with one of his biggest challenges since he came to power in 2012.
The protests began as opposition to a now-suspended bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China for those facing criminal charges but have grown into wider calls for democracy.
Demonstrators say they are fighting the erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement enshrining some autonomy for Hong Kong when China took it back from Britain in 1997.
They also say police have used excessive force, firing tear gas and bean bag pellets at close range, and are calling for an independent inquiry into the crisis.
“I ask everybody to put aside our differences and calm down, take a minute to look at our city, our home. Can we bear to push it into the abyss and see it smashed to pieces?” said Lam.
The protesters have called for Lam’s resignation.
China said on Monday the protests had reached a critical juncture.
“Protesters have been frequently using extremely dangerous tools to attack the police in recent days, constituting serious crimes with sprouts of terrorism emerging,” Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office spokesman Yang Guang said in Beijing.
Some Hong Kong legal experts say the official description of terrorism could lead to the use of anti-terror laws.
Hong Kong’s airport reopened on Tuesday with some flight resumptions but hundreds of others were still canceled, with airlines such as Vietnam Airlines HVN.HM, Jetstar Pacific and Malaysian Airlines advising travelers of rescheduling.