Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks to reporters' during a press conference at the government building in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. Lam said the government asked international public relations firms to help restore the city's reputation, battered by months of pro-democracy protests, but was rejected. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

Lam says PR firms declined to help restore Hong Kong's image

September 17, 2019 - 1:41 am

HONG KONG (AP) — Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said Tuesday that the government had asked international public relations firms to help restore the city's reputation, battered by months of pro-democracy protests, but was rejected.

Lam said the firms told the government that "the time is not right" as the violence and unrest in the semiautonomous Chinese territory showed no signs of ending. She didn't give details on the firms or when they were approached.

The city's reputation was likely tarnished not just by the protests but by what many viewed as the government's slow response to the crisis.

Days after more than a million people took to the streets in early June, kicking off the protests, Lam suspended an extradition bill that sparked the unrest but refused to formally withdraw it. She caved in this month after the demonstrations escalated, but the promise to ax the bill was deemed too little, too late as protesters widened their demands to include democratic reforms.

"It would perhaps be not the most cost-effective way to use government resources to launch any campaign to rebuild Hong Kong's reputation, but sooner or later, we will have to do it because I have every confidence in Hong Kong's fundamentals," Lam told a news conference Tuesday.

"The time will come for us to launch a major campaign to restore some of the damage done to Hong Kong's reputation," she said.

Violence flared again over the weekend after an unapproved march downtown descended into familiar chaos. Hong Kong's economy, already reeling from the U.S.-China trade war, is facing its first recession in years, with tourist arrivals plunging and businesses being hit by the unrest.

The government took out a full-page advertisement in the Australian Financial Review earlier this month, two days after Lam's announcement that she was formally withdrawing the bill, vowing a peaceful resolution to the conflict amid concerns of possible military intervention by China. It's the only known overseas effort by the government to assuage international jitters.

Lam said the city's downgrade this week by credit ratings agency Moody's was "disappointing" but acknowledged that the continued instability has tarnished international perception of Hong Kong's financial stability. Moody's was the second agency to make the move after Fitch Rating.

Lam also said that she will begin open dialogues next week with various community groups, including protesters, and that participants can freely express their views.

Many protesters have said the dialogues are meaningless if the government refuses to accept their four other demands — direct elections for the city's leaders, an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, unconditional release of protesters who have been detained and not labeling the protests as riots.

Lam said not all Hong Kong citizens support the protesters' demands and reiterated that the government cannot condone violence. She said the dialogues are not one-off "gimmicks" but an important first step to resolve grievances over problems such as shortage of affordable housing and lack of jobs that contributed to the unrest.

Also Tuesday, a subway train derailed during the morning rush hour, sparking rumors that it may have been caused by protesters, some of whom have vandalized subway stations in recent weeks. Transport Secretary Frank Chan urged the public not to speculate as investigations are ongoing. The fire department said eight people were injured, including five who were hospitalized.

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