Hong Kong brought to a standstill as city-wide strikes and protests hit

Lily Kuo in Hong Kong and Kate Lyons – The Guardian Aug 5, 2019

Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, has warned that mass protests have pushed the region to the brink of a “very dangerous situation” as residents have gone on strike, paralysing the city.

Lam, who has disappeared from public view for the past two weeks, gave a media briefing in which she condemned the protests for hurting Hong Kong’s economy and stability.

“Such extensive disruptions in the name of certain demands or uncooperative movement have seriously undermined Hong Kong law and order and are pushing our city, the city we all love, and many of us helped to build, to the verge of a very dangerous situation,” she said.

On Monday, transport across Hong Kong was brought to a standstill and more than 150 flights out of the city were cancelled. Almost 100 outbound and 100 inbound flights were cancelled. Protesters also blocked key roads and stopped trains throughout the city.

As the city enters its ninth consecutive week of mass protests, tensions have escalated. In Yuen Long, the site of a violent attack on commuters on 21 July, a car rammed through a barricade set up by protesters, narrowly missing people trying to hold back the barrier, and injuring one person.

Witnesses said that around 10am a car tried to drive through a roadblock set by protesters near the Yoho Mall in Yuen Long. Protesters surrounded the car, holding up umbrellas and forcing the driver out of the vehicle. Some began to deface the car and fought with the driver before others at the scene stopped the fighting.

The driver got back in his car and protesters tried to push against the vehicle to prevent him from leaving. “The driver ignored them and continued to accelerate. The tyres emitted a lot of white smoke. The vehicle broke through the barrier and knocked down one person and then he left the scene,” said Derek Man, who was on the road at the time, with the protesters.

Another witness, Chun Ming Lam, 25, a resident of Yuen Long, said he was on his way to work and standing on a footbridge over the road when he saw the incident. When he saw the car break through the barrier, protesters began yelling “first aid, first aid!” and he ran down to the scene where one person was propped up against the barrier. A car arrived later to take the man to a hospital, he said.

Lam who witnessed the attacks on 21 July, when dozens of masked men beat commuters with wooden and iron rods. “It was quite scary but I also witnessed the 7/21 incident and others in Yuen Long. It’s not so scary when comparing with that,” he said.

Protesters have shifted tactics beyond only marches and protests in the streets. Civil servants from more than 30 government departments, as well as pilots, teachers, construction workers, engineers, and aviation staff all pledged to strike on Monday.

On Monday morning, several lines of the MTR, the rail network serving Hong Kong, were suspended as protesters, many wearing face masks and black clothing, blocked the doors of trains, preventing them departing the stations. There were also reports of discarded umbrellas being wedged in train doors to prevent them from closing, delaying services.

Monday’s planned city-wide protest, which is aimed to disrupt peak-hour travel of commuters, is the fifth consecutive day of mass demonstrations in the city. Simultaneous rallies were planned for seven of Hong Kong’s 18 districts on Monday. Hong Kong has not held a general strike in more than 50 years.

Faith Tang, 30, a teacher at a language school, said the principal had closed the centre that day because so many teachers and administrative staff had stayed home. Tang said she joined the strike in order to force the government to respond to the protesters’ demands, which includes a complete withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill.

She added that she joined the strike, “to stand with my fellow Hongkongers, to show support for our relentless fight for freedom and justice.”

Commuters going to work said they were supportive of the strike, even if they themselves could not participate.

“This is a last resort,” said Cindy Chan, waiting in a long bus line after her local train line suffered severe delays. Chan works in utilities and said she was unable to take off from work. “The government doesn’t listen to the opinions of the people and later you can see it’s getting worse and worse,” she said.

The city-wide protests began over an extradition bill to send suspects to China, but have turned into a broader political movement for the semi-autonomous city, with residents demanding the protection of freedoms for Hong Kongers and accountability from the Hong Kong government.

Flanked by members of her government, Lam said she had already responded to the protesters demands. “Some people may not agree with our response… but we have considered every factor. What is in front of us is Hong Kong’s stability and future and escalated violence,” she said.

Protesters say police are deploying harsher tactics against them and trying to arrest more demonstrators. On Sunday night and the early hours of Monday, police clashed with protesters and residents in various locations, after protesters evaded and frustrated the police by holding flashmob demonstrations throughout the city. Police have arrested more than 60 people and charged 44 of them with rioting, a crime that could mean up to 10 years in prison.

On Monday, protesters braced for clashes with police as they continued to stage disruptions across the city. “When Hong Kong people are going to the march, we know there’s a risk,” said one protester, Lam, who joined the strike on Monday. “Our tactic is ‘be water,’ and we don’t really know what exactly we are going to do next, as things change rapidly every day. We just do whatever we can and see how things go.”

The former British colony, which reverted to Chinese control in 1997, is meant to enjoy a “high degree” of autonomy from the mainland as part of the “one country, two systems” framework, but residents say their freedoms are slowly disappearing under China’s influence.

On Sunday, people blocked Hong Kong’s cross-harbour tunnel and another group of protesters surrounded a police station in the outer district of Kwun Tong, where they shined lasers at the police and threw bricks at the compound. Earlier in the day, after a peaceful rally in Tseung Kwan O in Hong Kong’s New Territories, protesters broke the windows of a police station, using a makeshift catapult to launch objects at the building.

As fears rise that Beijing may intervene and quash the unrest, Hong Kongers have been watching Chinese state media carefully. On Sunday, Xinhua, a state-run news agency, published several articles condemning protesters, including one saying: “The central government will not sit idly by and let this situation continue.”