Hong Kong -- For the first time since its handover to China more than two decades ago, a city-wide strike brought much of Hong Kong to a standstill.
In an unusual sight for a city that prides itself on its work ethic, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers went on strike on Monday to support protesters who have been pressuring the government for the past nine weeks to answer their five demands, including a complete withdraw of the now-suspended extradition bill and setting up an independent commission to investigate whether Hong Kong Police have improperly used force against protesters.
The day began as protesters disrupted Hong Kong’s morning commute, blocking train doors and rail tracks, effectively shutting down eight lines of Hong Kong’s railway system for five hours at the height of rush hour.
As the day wore on, rallies held in seven districts across Hong Kong soon gave way to fierce clashes between police and protesters. After nightfall, pitch battles popped up in multiple spots all over Hong Kong. In one instance , a mob of anti-protesters attacked protesters with wooden rods when they marched into the normally-quiet neighborhood of North Point.
One-third of aviation industry workers took sick leave on Monday, the Ming Pao Daily News reported, resulting in more than 230 flights cancelled. Hong Kong International Airport was forced to operate with only one of two runways because of the number of air traffic controllers who called in sick.
Hong Kong’s embattled and deeply unpopular leader, Carrie Lam, appeared in public for the first time in two weeks on Monday morning, condemning the protesters and saying that they had pushed Hong Kong “to the verge of a very dangerous situation” and that they were using opposition to her now-shelved extradition bill as an excuse to undermine Beijing’s sovereignty in Hong Kong to “destroy the way of life cherished by the 7 million [residents].”
Protests erupted on the island in June over a controversial bill that would have allowed accused criminals to be extradited to countries where Hong Kong does not have an existing arrangement. That would have included mainland China, sparking concern over potential human rights abuses, and unearthing a deep-seated distrust for many in Hong Kong.
Lam suspended work on the bill soon after a violent clearance operation by police around government headquarters in mid-June. Despite reiterating on numerous occasion that the bill was “dead,” Lam and her ministers have refused to legally withdraw the bill, which remains one of the protesters' demands.
The early peaceful protest marches in June, which attracted record numbers of Hong Kongers to the streets, have become smaller, but sizable battles between masked and hardhat-fitted protesters and police continue. Both sides have resorted to increasingly violent measures.
A casualty of the ongoing unrest has been the public's relationship with the police, which has especially deteriorated since police were slow to respond to a mob that attacked protesters and pedestrians on July 21 in the suburb of Yuen Long.
Protesters have now started calling police "triads," a referenced to organized crime in China and elsewhere, accusing the police of colluded with organized crime in the Yuen Long attacks.
Over the weekend, police continuously fired tear gas near residential buildings in the neighborhood of Wong Tai Sin in an effort to disperse protesters, angering the unprotected residents in the area.
A pattern that has emerged over the last three weeks: a few hundred radical protesters gather, agitate the police by throwing bricks, attacking and vandalizing police stations and vehicles. Then the police respond by clearing them with tear gas, rubber bullets and sometimes indiscriminate take-downs.
This week some protesters seemed to escalate their tactics, slingshotting bricks into police stations and setting fires on major thoroughfares. A suspected petrol bomb was hurled at a group resting police officers in the suburb of Tai Po, the South China Morning Post reported.
In response, the police have stepped up arrests in their clearance operations. Police have arrested 420 people since protests began on June 9th, a police department spokesperson said in a press conference Monday.
By 5 p.m. on Monday, the police had already arrested 82 additional people.