Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam fielded questions and insults in the first of a series of community dialogues Thursday held to ease the social unrest from ongoing antigovernment protests.
Police with heavy anti-riot gear were deployed in the vicinity of the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in the Wan Chai district, where Lam and four senior officials met with 150 people randomly chosen out of some 20,000 people interested to join.
Schools, shops, public clinics and swimming pool nearby closed early to avoid possible conflict between police and protesters who had called upon others online to besiege the venue, in a bid to disrupt the talks they view as an exercise in futility.
A human chain was formed outside the heavily guarded stadium, with protesters chanting slogans calling for realization of all five of their demands that include withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill and an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality.
Most of the 30 speakers given a chance to talk spoke of the need for an independent inquiry, to rebuild the trust toward the government and police and to uphold social justice diminished since the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
"I believe this is just a show, but I still attend," one of the speakers told Lam during the two-and-a-half-hour event. "Hong Kong now has cancer and you think taking a painkiller could help?"
"Do you still oppose setting up an independent commission?" another asked. "I have never protested against the government or the police before, but I am saddened after seeing the chaos these few months, not because of protesters wrecking havoc, but because police keep whitewashing their wrongdoing. Five demands, not one less!"
Lam denied that the dialogues are publicity stunt and said the problems facing Hong Kong are far more than the five demands.
"People's trust in the government and police are at new lows," Lam said in response. "Reasons are hard to find but it's a fact. That's why we need communication and dialogue to deepen our understanding."
But the chief executive has repeatedly rejected setting up an independent probe, stressing that an existing police complaint council will conclude its investigation within months. She also reiterated the importance of respecting the rule of law and the role police play in maintaining it.
"We will give serious consideration to your opinions, but we cannot accept demands that touched upon the (political) bottom line or suggestions that may bring serious consequences," Lam said.
One member of the audience said after the event that he was not disappointed in Lam because he had not participated with high expectations.
"Lam is the one who blocked the setting up of an independent commission," a man identified by surname Chiang, 58, said. "The top priority is to stop police violence against the protesters. Demands are clear. She has many other ways to listen if she really wants to."
More than an hour after the event finished, protesters were still blocking the car park exit to prevent Lam's vehicle from leaving the venue, while others set roadblocks in nearby roads.
It was not known when the next town hall will be held.