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Hong Kong strike disrupts city as leader warns of ‘dangerous situation’

Protests continued Monday in Hong Kong as a general strike followed another weekend of violence. (Video: Reuters)

HONG KONG — On Monday, Ken Kwok did not head to his job in airline operations. Neither did financial planner Rachel Wong. Ashley Yue put her Hong Kong food tours on hold for the day.

Instead, they joined civil servants, bus drivers, baristas and pilots in a citywide strike that shut down businesses, crippled Hong Kong’s subway system and caused flight cancellations — an embarrassment for the Asian financial hub’s beleaguered government. As protesters rallied across the city, even the happiest place on Earth was not immune: Dozens of workers at Hong Kong Disneyland went on strike, disrupting rides.

The actions — and the protest-linked chaos that ensued again — struck at Hong Kong’s increasingly precarious position as an efficient base for business and signaled widening public anger over the failure of its leaders to offer concessions that could defuse weeks of political strife.

Later in the day, police fired tear gas to clear demonstrators from roads and areas around police stations in several parts of the city and made at least 82 arrests. Brief scuffles broke out between protesters and counterdemonstrators in the neighborhood of North Point, east of central Hong Kong. The two groups lobbed traffic cones and sticks at each other.

The political crisis, triggered by now-suspended plans to allow extraditions to mainland China, has swollen as Hong Kongers demand the bill’s full withdrawal, an independent inquiry into police actions toward protesters, greater democracy and an amnesty for those arrested in clashes between demonstrators and police. 

Events over the past 72 hours underscored the disconnect between the city’s residents and those who govern them. Footage broadcast on television showed dozens of residents of a working-class area yelling at police officers to get out of their neighborhood, accusing them of inciting trouble. 

After two weeks out of public view, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam emerged Monday to condemn the protests and the strike. She warned that the city was “on the verge of a very dangerous situation” but offered no concessions.

“As a result of these widespread disruptions and violence, the great majority of Hong Kong people are now in a state of great anxiety,” she said. She urged Hong Kongers to “say no to chaos.”

But the general strike demonstrated the dissenters’ increasing boldness. Many who did not show up to work, especially government employees, risked losing their jobs or facing punishment from employers.

China’s army releases video showing soldiers practicing shooting protesters

Kwok, the operations worker at Hong Kong Airlines, highlighted the strike’s strategic intent.

“The airport is the most important piece of infrastructure to the government, and shows the world an image of Hong Kong,” he said. “This is a matter of economic development. Can the government risk it?” 

Over 400 employees at the airline signed on to the strike, Kwok said, along with unions representing employees of Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s largest carrier. More than 200 flights at Hong Kong airport — among the world’s busiest — were canceled.

The airport authority said “potential circumstances” might affect operations and advised passengers to confirm the latest with their airlines.

Striking workers say their anxiety stems from police violence toward demonstrators and a sense that Hong Kong’s leaders are not representing the city’s interests and are ceding autonomy to China’s central government. Chinese officials have warned of a crackdown; the army released a video last week that showed soldiers practicing shooting protesters. 

On successive weekends, riot police have unleashed tear gas in densely populated Hong Kong neighborhoods. On Sunday night, streets in the neon-lit shopping meccas of Causeway Bay and Tsim Sha Tsui were filled with smoke. Police said Monday that they had fired more than 1,000 rounds of tear gas in the past two months and arrested more than 420 people, including some who face charges of rioting that carry up to 10 years in prison.

Protests paralyze Hong Kong neighborhoods as clashes flare again

Outraged by the way that Lam and police have handled the crisis, protesters say it is time to raise the stakes. 

“We can’t just go on marches forever,” said Yue, a 26-year-old business owner who runs food and cultural tours. The strike would pressure the government by disrupting its systems, she said.

“It’s about protecting Hong Kong’s core values,” she said. “If we let the violent police get away with their crimes, Hong Kong won’t be the Hong Kong we know anymore.” 

At a rally near government buildings in the downtown area Monday, a lawyer said half her firm of a few hundred did not show up to work. Strikers included a 40-year-old who manufactures computer parts, a 36-year-old health services worker and a 26-year-old teacher.

Even at Disneyland — a fantasy park — employees said the city’s leaders were in dreamland.

The government is trying to “escape reality” by not listening to protesters’ demands, said Alice Tam, 26, who has worked at the park for five years. 

Tam, who wore a Mickey Mouse watch and an Alice in Wonderland T-shirt, said voices from within famous establishments like Disneyland could draw more support to the movement. “We have a responsibility to do this,” she said of the strike.

Denunciations of police have intensified since dozens of armed men, suspected to be linked to organized-crime gangs, attacked protesters returning from a rally last month. Police took almost 40 minutes to arrive, by which time more than 40 people were hurt, some seriously. Senior police defended the response and said they were stretched.

Police have arrested only eight people in those attacks, on relatively light charges of unlawful assembly. 

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s economy is suffering. Official data last week showed the economy contracted 0.3 percent on a quarterly basis, while annual growth slowed to 0.6 percent. The Hang Seng stock index, which fell nearly 3 percent Monday, has suffered amid fears that the clashes have hurt Hong Kong’s status as a business center. 

Paul Chan, the city’s finance secretary, warned that Hong Kong could tip into recession, pointing to a drop in sales of luxury goods and jewelry. 

Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, urged the government last week to “show clear leadership in meeting the expectations of Hong Kong people and in restoring the city’s international reputation for effective governance.” 

Hong Kong’s civil servants voice anger at their own government

Wong, the financial planner, disagreed with the government’s assessment that economic stability was of primary concern. The 25-year-old went on strike despite fears of losing customers opposed to her politics, as did others in her company, many of whom have Chinese clients. 

“It is not about how the business goes or our monetary benefits. At this very difficult time, we need to stand up for ourselves, and for our city, to do what I think is the right thing to do,” she said. “It is about our morals, and our humanity.” 

Anna Kam contributed to this report.

Strike disrupts Hong Kong transportation after weekend of clashes

Hong Kong’s civil servants voice anger at their own government

Hong Kong protests spill into tourist district with tear gas and arrests

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