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City-wide strikes bring Hong Kong to a standstill

Vehicles are stuck on the roads as protesters use barricades to block several roads at Causeway Bay to hold the anti-extradition bill protest in Hong Kong, August 4, 2019.

Hong Kong was hit by widespread strikes Monday that brought chaos to much of the city’s transport network, including Hong Kong International Airport, in the most ambitious day of demonstrations since the movement began in June.

More than 2,330 aviation workers joined the strike, according to the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, leading to the cancellation of more than 100 flights to and from one of the world’s busiest airports. Unusually long queues were seen in the airport check-in hall throughout the day.

An internal memo circulated Monday by Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, Cathay Pacific, said that the city’s air space and runway capacity had been reduced by 50% for all airlines.

Experts said Monday’s strikes were the biggest to have rocked the city in decades.

Direct action protests also took place in seven districts spanning the semi-autonomous Chinese territory: Admiralty, Sha Tin, Tuen Mun, Tseun Wan, Wong Tai Sin, Mong Kok and Tai Po. Organizers also called for a general strike at Disneyland, on Hong Kong’s Lantau Island, where the airport is also located.

Strikers included teachers, lifeguards at beaches, security workers, construction workers — and almost 14,000 people from the engineering sector.

Monday’s strike followed the ninth consecutive weekend of protests in Hong Kong amid a worsening political crisis. The protests began in early June in opposition to a controversial — and now-shelved — bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China.

But they have since evolved to include calls for greater democracy, an inquiry into alleged police brutality and the resignation of the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, among other demands.

Biggest strike of its kind in decades

The general strikes across Hong Kong on Monday are believed to be the first of their kind since 1967, when a Chinese Communist Party-allied union instigated widespread labor protests.

At the time, Hong Kong was a colony of the United Kingdom and Mao Zedong was the leader of mainland China. As the protesters turned their focus from labor rights to the British colonial administration, work stoppages brought the territory to a standstill.

The strikes were followed by deadly terror attacks in which 51 people died.

Antony Dapiran, a lawyer and Hong Kong historian, said Monday’s strikes are likely the biggest in the city since those in 1967. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.

“We’ve had rallies in Hong Kong before, we’ve had protests, but we’ve never had anything where multiple sites around the city have all simultaneously have been the focus of protests,” said Dapiran, the author of “City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong.”

John Carroll, a historian at Hong Kong University, agreed that Monday’s strikes were unprecedented in scale and organization in the city’s modern history. He said that the best parallel with Monday’s action was probably the 1925 general labor strike, which lasted for months. The 1967 strike was different to Monday’s unrest, he said, because many workers were living in fear of going to work due to terrorist bombings across Hong Kong.

“I have no idea where it goes,” Carroll said of Monday’s action. “But it’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel here.”

Fresh clashes after morning of transport woes

Monday’s strikes followed a morning of transport chaos as demonstrators disrupted major transit routes across the city in the fifth day of protests in a row.

Major subway lines were suspended or delayed during rush hour as protesters blocked trains from leaving stations. An average of 4.84 million passengers ride the subway every day, according to the Hong Kong Transport Department — more than half of the city’s population.

Protesters also blocked roads and highways, including the Cross-Harbour Tunnel, a vital traffic artery connecting Hong Kong island with Kowloon.

As the afternoon wore on, clashes between protesters and police broke out across the city and police fired tear gas in five districts.

In Tin Shui Wai, police fired tear gas after facing off with demonstrators who were surrounding the police station and hurling stones at officers. Tin Shui Wai is close to the Hong Kong-China border, in the north of the city, and neighbors the suburb of Yuen Long, where an armed mob attacked civilians in a subway station last month, leaving at least 45 injured.

In Admiralty, the heart of the city’s financial district close to the government headquarters, tear gas was fired on protesters from above. Thousands of demonstrators dressed in black, the color of the protest movement, began blocking roads with traffic cones and street barriers on Harcourt Road. Pushing back at officers, protesters threw empty tear gas canisters at the police lines.

A large group of protestors also gathered in Wong Tai Sin, which was the scene of clashes Saturday night when protesters threw water bottles and rocks at officers outside the police station there. Police responded by firing tear gas.

Tear gas was also fired in Tai Po, in the north of the city, and Tsim Sha Tsui, a major shopping district in Kowloon.

1,000 rounds of tear gas, 160 rubber bullets, 420 arrests

In recent weeks the protests have become increasingly violent and unpredictable.

Protesters swarmed the streets of retail hotspot Causeway Bay, on Hong Kong Island, Sunday night, blocking key roads. Police fired a barrage of tear gas in a bid to disperse the crowds. Earlier, in a separate demonstration in the eastern New Territories, a group of protesters gathered around a police station, throwing objects and breaking windows.

On Saturday, marches began in Mong Kok, one of the world’s most densely populated areas, and made their way to Tsim Sha Tsui, which wasn’t on the protest route approved by authorities — turning the march into an illegal assembly.

The government on Sunday night condemned the unrest, saying in a statement that “blatant violation of law, wanton destruction of public peace and violent attacks on the police will harm Hong Kong’s society, economy and our people’s livelihood.”

In a press conference Monday, police accused protesters of using “guerrilla tactics” to disrupt public order and said they had arrested 420 people since the unrest began on June 9.

Charges have included rioting, unlawful assembly — protesters have often veered off police-approved routes — and attacking officers. Since the start of the protests, police have used 160 rubber bullets, 150 sponge bullets and fired 1,000 rounds of tear gas, a police spokesperson said.

Also on Monday, Hong Kong’s leader gave her first press conference in two weeks, calling for an end to the violence that has rocked the city.

Lam acknowledged that her attempt to push through the now-suspended extradition bill had been a “failure.” She pledged to “engage more, listen more and do more to meet the wishes of Hong Kong.”

But in a move that is likely to further anger protesters, Lam refused to resign and said it wasn’t within her power to release those who have been arrested during demonstrations — another demand of the protesters.

Meanwhile, Financial Secretary Paul Chan warned that the risk of recession is rising in Hong Kong — citing the protests and the global economic slowdown.

“The demonstrations in the past two months, and some activities that are brewing, will affect people’s life and the foundation of Hong Kong’s success and hurt the economy. The victims will be the public. Please think it over,” he wrote.

By Helen Regan, Joshua Berlinger, Jessie Yeung and Ben Westcott, CNN

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