HONG KONG — A general strike in Hong Kong on Monday paralyzed transportation networks at rush hour, forced the cancellation of hundreds of flights, and shut down scores of businesses and restaurants after another chaotic weekend of protests across several parts of the city.
The strike, along with demonstrators who are increasingly using tactics to outsmart police, is intensifying pressure on Hong Kong’s government to acquiesce to the pro-autonomy movement’s demands for a full withdrawal of an unpopular extradition bill, investigation of police use of force in recent weeks and greater democracy.
Protesters sent police on a chase through the city Sunday night, changing routes several times and briefly shutting down traffic in several neighborhoods.
“A lot of radical and violent acts happened at multiple locations in the territory,” police said in statement Monday morning, elaborating that protesters had committed arson and “hurled bricks and hard objects” at police stations.
Police had to respond to protests in at least eight neighborhoods, as protesters changed routes multiple times to stave off arrests. Police used tear gas in areas including Causeway Bay, a neon-lit shopping hub, a scene that is becoming commonplace even in residential and heavily touristed areas in the major financial center.
Police arrested 44 people for offenses including unlawful assembly and possession of offensive weapons, they said Monday morning.
Black-clad protesters chanted “Monday! Strike!” as they flooded into the busy shopping district to occupy the city’s cross-harbor tunnel.
Tens of thousands appeared to heed their call Monday, as airline pilots, crews, bus drivers, financial planners and others declined to show up to work. By 9 a.m., transportation networks in the normally efficient financial hub were suspended or delayed, including the airport express train linking the city center to the airport. Terminals were chaotic as more than 200 flights into or out of Hong Kong were delayed.
The mass protests, some drawing millions, began in early June over a now-shelved extradition bill that would have allowed fugitives in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for trial. The proposal is seen as a major threat to Hong Kong’s independent judiciary system, which is supposed to be protected by the “one country, two systems” framework established after the colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
As the Beijing-backed government has refused to compromise on any of the protesters’ demands, demonstrations have evolved into a broader movement against Chinese interference and the erosion of the territory’s civil liberties. Protests have become a weekly, if not daily, occurrence, with demonstrations targeting the airport, shopping malls, transportation systems and government buildings.
Sunday saw two main rallies: the first in a residential area in eastern Kowloon called Tseung Kwan O, the second in central areas of Hong Kong island. By using a new guerrilla strategy, protesters who were part of the second rally sent police flying all over the city, quickly disrupting and departing busy areas to avoid confrontations.
Protesters on Hong Kong island diverted from the rally’s starting point several miles west, where the Chinese government’s liaison office and police building nearby were barricaded in anticipation of clashes. Two weekends ago, the liaison office was the focus of rage for protesters, who defaced the building and the Chinese emblem.
“We are very angry,” said Kenji Chen, a 39-year-old English teacher at the park rally on Hong Kong island. “Hong Kong people, we are so frustrated. The government should be of the people, for the people, by the people. But what the government is doing is to please the Chinese government. It’s not listening to the people.”
This weekend was the ninth in a row of increasingly hectic and violent demonstrations. A police-approved march through major shopping district Tsim Sha Tsui on Saturday splintered into protests around Kowloon, a peninsula opposite the city’s central business district.
At one point, protesters briefly occupied a cross-harbor tunnel and spray-painted it with “revolution of our times” and “ideas are bulletproof.” Protesters also removed the Chinese flag from a pole and flung it into the harbor.
China’s liaison office expressed its “strong indignation,” saying in a statement that the move “flagrantly offended the dignity of the country and the nation and trampled on the bottom line of the ‘one country, two systems.’”
Samuel Wong, a 23-year-old protester, said he fears authorities will “treat Hong Kongers just like a normal Chinese city.”
“The biggest fear is, they cancel the system, one country, two systems,” he said.
Police deployed several rounds of tear gas late Saturday to disperse protesters. Police said some violent protesters threw gas bombs, glass bottles and bricks at officers; they arrested 20 people for unlawful assembly and assault. Police have arrested over 100 people in relation to the protests, including 44 people last weekend who were charged with rioting.
Police strongly condemned “the radical protesters who disregarded law and order” on Saturday, saying in a statement that “police are capable and determined to maintain law and order and will not tolerate any violence.”
Calls have intensified for an independent investigation into the police, as protests regularly end in exchanges of projectiles, tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper spray. Police have come under fire since a mob attack last month left 45 people injured in a subway station. Police, who arrived 39 minutes later, are accused of condoning the violence and colluding with the attackers. Police deny the claim.
An independent investigation is one of the five main protest demands, alongside calling for the leader Carrie Lam to step down, the removal of the term “rioters” from the June 12 protest, amnesty for all those arrested and the direct election of officials.
Authorities show no sign of acquiescing to any demands. China’s top military official in Hong Kong called the protests “absolutely intolerable,” and video was released of the People’s Liberation Army conducting anti-riot drills in Hong Kong.
In a rare news conference,China’s top office for Hong Kong affairs condemned protesters, reiterated its support for Lam and the police, and called the return of law and order its “most pressing priority.”
Protesters responded on Sunday by spray-painting the Golden Bauhinia sculpture — a reunification gift from the Chinese government — with the words “heaven would destroy the Communist Party” and “liberate Hong Kong.”
“It’s crystal clear that the [Chinese authorities will] rely on the police violence,” pro-democracy activist Leung Kwok-hung, also known as Long Hair, said outside the park rally. “They try to make it clear that they will use the police force to govern Hong Kong. . . . “It’s very dangerous now. It’s almost like a semi-military mode in Hong Kong.”