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Mothers rally as Hong Kong's divide shows no sign of closing

HONG KONG — Hong Kong's political divisions showed no sign of closing as students rebuffed an offer from city leader Carrie Lam to meet and a few thousand mothers rallied in support of young protesters who left a trail of destruction in the legislature's building at the start of the week.

"Don't feel lonely, dad and mum will support you," read one of many handwritten messages held aloft at a "Hong Kong Mothers" rally Friday.

University professor Sealing Cheng asked who was responsible for the destruction of the legislature, implying that an arrogant government had driven the protesters to break into the building and rampage through it.

"Our hearts ache for the young protesters and our society torn apart," she said in a speech to the crowd of mostly women.

The mainland's economic influence loomed large at the rally, held in a square under the towering offices of the Bank of China and other Chinese banks. Many young people feel left out of the China-driven economy, struggling to make ends meet and stuck in tiny apartments because of soaring real estate prices. They think a democratically elected government would be more responsive to their needs than one chosen by pro-Beijing elites who benefit from the economic ties to the mainland.

The Monday night assault on the legislature — in which glass walls were shattered, slogans spray-painted over the walls and the electronic voting system destroyed — seems to have hardened positions on both sides.

The pro-Beijing establishment condemned the violence, as did the Chinese government. On the other side, a large swath of Hong Kong's population expressed sympathy for the students, seeing them as having sacrificed for a shared cause, that of preventing an erosion of freedoms and increased Chinese influence over the territory.

Lam, who disappeared from public view for two weeks as protests mounted, pledged to do a better job of listening to the voices of young people in a morning speech on Monday, a holiday that marked the 22nd anniversary of the return of Hong Kong from British rule to China.

But her invitation later in the week to meet behind closed doors was rebuffed by student unions at two Hong Kong universities as insincere and a publicity gimmick.

Student leaders said at a news conference Friday that any meeting should be public and include a wider representation than just them. They also demanded that protesters, dozens of whom have been arrested, would not be prosecuted.

"A closed-door meeting does not have any witnesses to prove what was discussed, the public does not know what the dialogue was about," said Jordan Pang from the University of Hong Kong Students' Union. "The public has the right to know."

Ng Yat Ming, vice president of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Students' Union, said they would be condemned as traitors if they negotiated with Lam on behalf of the public.

"We believe it is a PR stunt," he said.

Young people have taken the lead in protesting against Lam's now-suspended proposal to allow the extradition of suspects to mainland China. Many saw the proposed legislation as a threat to the rights guaranteed to Hong Kong under the "one country, two systems" framework that governs it.

Lam suspended the bills indefinitely after a huge protest march on June 9 and then a June 12 demonstration that blocked access to the legislature and nearby streets.

The protesters remain unsatisfied. Their demands include the formal withdrawal of the bills, Lam's resignation, the release of dozens of arrested protesters and an independent investigation into a police crackdown on the June 12 protest that included tear gas and rubber bullets.

They blocked streets and government buildings and besieged the police headquarters twice before storming the legislature on Monday. The Legislative Council has suspended meetings until October for repairs to the heavily damaged complex.

One protester charged in a siege of police headquarters on June 21 appeared in court Friday, Hong Kong media reported. He was the first of those arrested to do so.

Pun Ho-chiu has been charged with assaulting eight police officers, damaging walls and escalators at police headquarters and behaving in a disorderly manner, public broadcaster RTHK said on its website. He was denied bail.

Pun accused police of mistreating him while in custody, according to the media reports. The judge said the complaints are outside the court's mandate.