Thankfully, the city has been given a much-needed break from weeks of violence involving radical protesters. Whether the return of relatively peaceful protests over the weekend marks the start of a process to restore calm and stability remains to be seen. But with so many people having taken to the streets again in a rational and non-violent manner on Sunday, the aspirations of those who marched cannot be ignored. It is to be hoped that restraint may prevail so dialogue and reconciliation can follow.
The peaceful rally, which began in Victoria Park, was a welcome change in the wake of outrage expressed following violence at the airport and some districts. Protesters risk losing the support of the local and international communities if the situation deteriorates, and Beijing may believe it is winning over public opinion after the high turnout at an event on Saturday targeting violence.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has yet to respond to the latest rally, which was generally peaceful, but police said acts that breached the peace occurred afterwards. However, the administration has reiterated that it will open sincere dialogue with the public, mend social rifts and rebuild social harmony once everything has calmed down. With boycotts of school classes and more protests and non-cooperation campaigns under way, Lam may not necessarily think the city has yet reached the turning point. She has also repeatedly stressed that the government has done its best to meet demands.
The recent use of harsh rhetoric against the protests by Beijing may have also limited her room to manoeuvre. However, a statement by former secretary for justice Elsie Leung Oi-sie could provide some leeway for Lam. Leung, who is also a top Beijing adviser, said the protests were still a matter of public order rather than national security, and the situation had not reached the stage requiring intervention by the People's Liberation Army.
The government must therefore seize the opportunity to respond to the public before there is further confrontation. However limited the options, it is incumbent upon the government to break the impasse. The public has yet to be convinced by its reasons not to pursue some of the demands, such as withdrawing the bill and appointing independent investigations into police handling of the protests. The government has already twice missed the opportunity to defuse the crisis following two mass protests in June. Concerns have been raised that some protesters may once again resort to violence if peaceful mass demonstrations are not met with a positive response. As leader of the city, Lam needs to take more proactive steps to ease tensions.
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