Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have launched a rare citywide strike, crippling parts of the city, as the semi-autonomous territory’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam warned on Monday of the “dangerous path” the demonstrations are heading.
At least eight railway lines, including the airport express, were shut fully or partly. Several protesters were seen blocking entrances to the commuter trains, occasionally leading to fighting with other passengers rushing to their destinations.
An estimated 200 flights were also cancelled on Monday, and only one of two runways in the city’s main airport is operating. Media reports blamed it on aviation workers joining the strike.
A number of protesters also tried to block vehicular traffic, causing brief congestion before authorities came to clear the streets of the steet and plastic barriers.
It was earlier reported that at least 14,000 people from more than 20 sectors have committed to the strike, according to organisers – many hiding behind masks for fear of reprisal.
People also indicated their plans online to either strike or phone in sick on Monday – from civil servants and social workers to flight attendants, pilots, bus drivers and even employees of the city’s Disneyland.
Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas, reporting from Hong Kong, said that many of the streets in the city are left empty.
“This is a city where there’s very little, it feels anyway, economic activity going on at the moment.”
In a press conference on Monday morning, Lam said the protests “challenge ‘one country, two systems’ and threaten Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability”.
“The government will be resolute in maintaining law and order of Hong Kong and restoring confidence.”
The protest movement is experimenting with more varied civil disobedience techniques after huge rallies failed to move Beijing.
Carrie Lam said her government will be ‘resolute’ in maintaining law and order in Hong Kong [Edgar Su/Reuters]
The semi-autonomous southern Chinese city has witnessed two months of unprecedented protests and clashes triggered by opposition to a planned extradition law that quickly evolved into a wider movement for democratic reform and a halt to sliding freedoms.
On Sunday night, different districts of the city were filled with the sound of protesters erecting, and just as hastily taking down their improvised barricades.
Throughout the weekend, riot police fired tear gas as they confronted the protesters.
On Saturday, police detained a 36-year old Filipino and a 26-year old South Korean worker on the accusation of taking part in the protest, according to the South China Morning Post. They are the first two foreigners arrested since demonstrations began.
Several protesters were seen early on Monday blocking entrances to the commuter trains [Philip Fong/AFP]
Authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing have signalled a hardening stance with the Chinese military saying it is ready to quell the “intolerable” unrest if requested, and dozens of protesters charged with rioting.
The largely leaderless protest movement uses social messaging apps to coordinate, and the strike action appears to be gaining more traction than previous strike calls in the last few weeks.
Given its reputation as a bastion for free-market capitalism, Hong Kong does not have much recent history of successful labour movements.
“There’s a psychological barrier for people to strike,” protester and pastor Monica Wong, 40, told AFP news agency on Sunday as she attended a large rally.
— Ray Kwong (@raykwong) August 4, 2019
“I really understand how some people will face huge pressures from their supervisors,” she added.
Alongside the strike, protesters plan to hold rallies in seven different parts of the city, as protests continue for the fourth day in a row.
The last two weeks have seen a surge in violence on both sides with police repeatedly firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse increasingly hostile projectile-throwing crowds.
A group of men suspected to be linked to triads – Hong Kong’s notorious gangsters – also attacked demonstrators, putting 45 people in hospital.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover deal with Britain, Hong Kong has rights and liberties unseen on the Chinese mainland, including an independent judiciary and freedom of speech.
But many say those rights are being curtailed, citing the disappearance into mainland custody of dissident booksellers, the disqualification of prominent politicians and the jailing of pro-democracy protest leaders.
Public anger has been compounded by rising inequality and the perception that the city’s distinct language and culture are being threatened by ever-closer integration with the Chinese mainland.
Hong Kong’s leader Lam has made few concessions beyond agreeing to suspend the extradition bill, and has shied away from public appearances.
Protesters are demanding her resignation, an independent inquiry into police tactics, an amnesty for those arrested, a permanent withdrawal of the bill, and the right to elect their leaders.