Hong Kong was paralysed today with more than 200 flights cancelled and widespread disruption to subway services after anti-government protesters called for a citywide strike and afternoon rallies in several neighbourhoods.
Protesters stopped train doors from closing by lying on the ground and or jamming them with umbrellas or fire extinguishers. Scuffles broke out in some crowded train stations.
Other demonstrators flooded at least 15 roads including main thoroughfares and blocked access to three key tunnels in the city, affecting the morning commute for hundreds of thousands.
Air traffic controllers and airline staff also joined the strike, affecting the number of flights that could take off and land, with only one of two runways in operation, reported the South China Morning Post, a local newspaper.
Activists aimed to create discord in other ways that would make it easier for residents to join the strike without having to call in sick, such as misusing emergency buttons on elevators, as well as purposefully driving slowly and creating fake accidents to stall traffic.
Despite chaos in the city of 7 million people that is heavily reliant on public transportation, people largely seemed to take it in stride, patiently queuing at taxi stands and walking to work.
Some rang their employers to say they simply could not get in for their shifts.
Cheng Chi Fai, 40, a bank employee, told the Telegraph that roughly 80 per cent of his colleagues couldn’t get to work. “I have been attending protests and I don’t support the government,” he said.
“Instead of saying that protesters are affecting the economy, it’s the government who should be responsible for all this.”
At least tens of thousands across all sectors including civil servants, finance professionals, lawyers, teachers, construction workers, airlines and air traffic controllers joined the strike, despite earlier warnings from city officials to “stand fast at their posts.” Hundreds of flights were also affected, leaving some people stranded in the city and others abroad unable to return home.
Hong Kong is facing its worst political crisis since the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997. More than two months of unrest – with near-daily rallies ending at nightfall with clouds of tear gas and violence as activists clash with police – have failed to win any concessions from the government.
Demonstrators first came out to the streets against a now-suspended extradition proposal that would have sent suspects to face trial in mainland China, where the Communist Party controls the courts.
Those demands have since expanded beyond the formal withdrawal of the bill to an independent investigation into police brutality and even direct leadership elections. Protesters have also grown increasingly irate at police officers, besieging a number of police stations.
Since mass demonstrations began in early June, police have fired 1,000 rounds of tear gas, 150 rounds of sponge grenades, and 160 rounds of rubber bullets, arresting more than 400 people, aged 14 to 76, authorities said Monday. About 140 officers have been injured and two remain in hospital.
The citywide strike raised the stakes for the authorities as protester actions now threaten to seriously damage Hong Kong’s status as an efficient international financial hub.
Rows of riot police, some deployed the evening before, shot volleys of tear gas in bright daylight at activists as early as around 2:30pm. In Admiralty, protesters defied continuous streams of tear gas, each time refusing to retreat and snuffing out canisters by capping them with traffic cones and pouring water through the nozzle.
In the working class area of Tin Shui Wai, where police discharged the day’s first tear gas canisters and made most of the arrests, officers also charged at local residents, angering and scaring many. Those living in a public housing estate next to the standoff threw objects at police officers from high towers.
“People used to feel secure when police were around,” said Louis Ma, 27. “Now, that’s not the case – it’s the opposite. We’re all worried the police will overreact no matter who you are.”
“Police are also attacking normal residents in the neighbourhood, even those wearing house slippers,” said Anthony Leung, 26, a social worker, upset that tear gas was being fired in residential areas.
Two hit-and-run incidents also occurred, adding to the turmoil.
City leaders maintained their position in the pandaemonium, with Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam refusing to step down as doing so would not “lead to a better solution.”
Instead, she condemned protesters for having “ulterior motives,” “trying to ruin Hong Kong,” and pushing the city to “the verge of a very dangerous situation,” warning that prosperity and stability were under threat.
Her first press appearance in weeks, however, is likely to fuel further anger.
“The government is not doing its job,” said Tsang Chi Leung, 40, a blacksmith, who joined the strike even though he would lose a day’s worth of wages.
Protesters have told the Telegraph that they plan to organise more strikes, in defiance of ongoing threats from Beijing that it would deploy the military to restore order in a move that would be reminiscent of the 1989 bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square.
But the movement shows no signs of slowing. Slogans like “Reclaim Hong Kong, revolution of our times!” and “F*** popo” can be spotted all over the city, – spray painted onto sidewalks and roads, scrawled in pedestrian walkways and on walls of protest art that keep springing up despite the city’s best efforts to take them down.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s water cannons, rubber bullets or tear gas, the damage is already done to us,” said Victor Ng, 35, a teacher. “The government needs to find an exit and take the responsibility; they need to fix and regain trust from society.”
Additional reporting by Yiyin Zhong
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