HONG KONG — Antigovernment protesters in Hong Kong mounted their fiercest challenge to the authorities on Monday, disrupting more than 200 airline flights, occupying malls and blocking roadways and rail lines to snarl the commute for hundreds of thousands of workers.
The protesters called for a general strike in an effort to halt daily life across the semiautonomous Chinese territory, wielding a potentially powerful new tool in their weekslong campaign against the Hong Kong government.
Hong Kong’s values of efficiency, hard work and, increasingly, a dedication to public protest are colliding as protesters from across society test the limits of the city’s police force. Officers on Monday fired tear gas near shopping malls and residential areas and arrested at least 82 people, while the city’s leader warned that efforts to “topple Hong Kong” could destroy livelihoods and push the city “to the verge of a very dangerous situation.”
Monday was the last of three consecutive days of large-scale civil disobedience intended to increase pressure on the government as it confronts Hong Kong’s worst political crisis since 1997, when it was returned to Chinese rule after more than 150 years as a British colony.
Many protesters said they felt they had no choice but to escalate their actions after the government was unswayed by peaceful marches in June that organizers said drew as many as two million people.
Locations of protests on Monday
The protests began nearly two months ago in response to legislation, since suspended, that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China, where the courts are controlled by the governing Communist Party. The movement, which has been driven by longstanding fears of deteriorating freedoms under Beijing’s rule, has expanded to include a variety of grievances, including the stalled expansion of direct elections and accusations of excessive force by the police.
It was unclear how many people heeded the call to strike. But protesters began the day by blocking roads and train doors using flash-mob-style tactics, while more than 200 flights at the city’s international airport were canceled as large numbers of air traffic controllers called in sick. An estimated 2,300 people in the civil aviation industry participated in the strike, according to the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.
Mass rallies were held at more than half a dozen sites, including outside the government headquarters on Hong Kong’s main island. Officers fired tear gas at several locations across the city.
Later in the evening, protesters in the North Point neighborhood on eastern Hong Kong Island were briefly attacked by men wearing white shirts and wielding sticks in a scene reminiscent of July 21, when a pro-Beijing mob beat protesters and bystanders in the satellite town of Yuen Long.
Since the protests began in early June, the police have arrested 420 people and fired 1,000 rounds of tear gas, a spokesman said Monday.
That is significantly more than during Hong Kong’s last sustained protest movement in 2014, when the use of tear gas against pro-democracy demonstrators galvanized the public in support of a sit-in that lasted 79 days. The police fired a total of 87 tear gas canisters then, and only on that first night.
In recent weeks, the protesters’ anger has largely shifted to focus on the scale and intensity of the police response. On Monday they surrounded and vandalized several police stations, setting fires outside at least two of them. Supporters say the police have regularly shown restraint.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, warned Monday morning in her first public remarks in two weeks that the city “has become unsafe and unstable” and that “a series of extremely violent acts are pushing Hong Kong into very precarious circumstances.”
Mrs. Lam accused protesters of challenging Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong, citing a slogan some of them chanted that is associated with an imprisoned activist who at one point advocated Hong Kong independence.
“They want to topple Hong Kong, to thoroughly destroy the livelihoods that seven million people cherish,” she said.
Mrs. Lam is under pressure from China’s central government to bring the protests under control, and the Chinese military hinted last month that it could be called in to restore order. The Hong Kong government has repeatedly denied plans to make any such request.
The response by Hong Kong officials to the strike on Monday “was a disaster,” said Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and the author of a book about dissent in Hong Kong. “They came out with a fairly hard line, no concessions, nothing new.”
Mrs. Lam even faced criticism from establishment lawmakers. She “raised many questions at the news conference, but where are the solutions?” Ann Chiang, a lawmaker from Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, wrote on Facebook. “Disappointing!!!”
Mainland Chinese officials responsible for Hong Kong policy are scheduled to hold a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday. On Wednesday, they will meet with Hong Kong delegates to the Chinese national congress in Shenzhen, just across the mainland border, the Hong Kong public broadcaster RTHK reported.
The Hong Kong government also warned Monday that the unrest was affecting the local economy, including sales of luxury goods as mainland visitors choose to avoid the city, a concern that will garner little sympathy from protesters. Hong Kong stocks declined by almost 3 percent on Monday.
“The movement has had a lot of impact on Hong Kong, the operation of the whole economy and the operation of many industries and businesses,” said Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer in government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “But I think this is the right of Hong Kong people to demand more freedom and more justice in society.”
Some commuters complained about the transportation delays and confronted protesters. Vehicles plowed through barriers set up by protesters along roadways at least twice, sending demonstrators diving for safety. But even those facing delays said the government was to blame for failing to address public grievances.
“Carrie Lam has caused my absence today,” said Dancus Au, 24, an employee at a security company who was stuck in a subway station for hours in the morning.
He said Mrs. Lam had made a mistake by merely suspending the extradition bill rather than formally withdrawing it, as protesters have demanded.
“She should have said ‘withdraw’ at the beginning of this fiasco,” he said. “She is part of the root cause, while Beijing is another part of it.”
Labor unions said hundreds of thousands may have joined the strike, and some groups, like workers at Hong Kong Disneyland, did announce work stoppages. Others took a day of leave or called in sick to join the protests. After weeks of protests led largely by people in their teens and twenties, the general strike was seen as a way for middle-aged supporters of the movement to participate.
Janice Lau, a 38-year-old teacher, pumped her fist in the air in encouragement as she and her 6-year-old daughter, Zoe, watched protesters drag steel barricades to block traffic near the government headquarters in the Admiralty district.
“I’m proud of them,’’ she said. “Society forced them to do this, and they didn’t harm the society. These days, people are more afraid when the police appear than when protesters appear.”
Some businesses also closed. The Hong Kong Jockey Club, which has a government-granted monopoly on gambling, announced that off-site betting facilities would stop taking wagers by 6 p.m., citing safety concerns. At two luxury malls, Pacific Place in Admiralty and Lee Gardens in Causeway Bay, many shops were closed.
Chinese state media outlets, which have grown increasingly vocal in their condemnation of the protests, renewed their criticism on Monday.
The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s outlet, criticized protesters who had thrown a Chinese flag into the Hong Kong harbor over the weekend, accusing them of wanting to end the “one country, two systems” arrangement that defines the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing. Mrs. Lam also mentioned the incident in her remarks on Monday.
Since protesters started to increasingly target police stations this past weekend, officers have appeared to be more aggressive in making arrests. But the increased assertiveness risked further inflaming public sentiment, and at least one protest not originally scheduled for Monday was driven by anger over an earlier arrest.
“For me the most alarming thing is we’re kind of on a knife’s edge here — open disrespect for the police, police stations being targeted,” Mr. Dapiran said. “We are on the cusp of what could be a general breakdown of law and order. It hasn’t gotten there yet, but the government hasn’t done anything to stop it.”
Katherine Li and Ezra Cheung contributed reporting from Hong Kong. Elsie Chen contributed research from Beijing.
( Article originally appear in The New York Times on 5 August 2019 )