Hong Kong protesters looked to shut down the city with a general strike on Monday after a ninth straight weekend of unrest triggered by Beijing’s tightening grip over the financial hub.
Demonstrators plan to take leave or call in sick from work and disrupt the morning commute, moves that could snarl traffic and disrupt airport operations. Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. said it canceled more than 140 flights coming to and from the city, while Hong Kong Airlines Ltd. scrapped 30 flights.
The protests began in June against a proposed bill allowing extraditions to mainland China, but have since morphed into a broader challenge to China. Authorities in Beijing have continued to back Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who has resisted demands to withdraw the bill completely, investigate police violence, allow more democracy and step down from her position.
The biggest of many questions is how long the city’s leaders or China’s central government will tolerate such open dissent, especially as the violence shows little sign of abating. State news agency Xinhua said in a commentary that the central government wouldn’t stand silent forever and warned ominously of “evil forces.”
Hong Kong police recently began slapping protesters with colonial-era rioting charges in a bid to deter large numbers of protesters. Anxiety is also growing that Beijing might call in the People’s Liberation Army, which released a video last week showing troops practicing riot control.
On Saturday, protesters lobbed bricks at a police station with a makeshift catapult. Some threw Molotov cocktails. At least 20 people were arrested for offenses including unlawful assembly and assault.
On Sunday evening, police fired off tear gas volleys at protesters in the crowded shopping district of Causeway Bay as activists jammed traffic by blocking the Cross Harbor Tunnel that connects Hong Kong Island with Kowloon to the north. Police said 44 people were arrested.
It was unclear how many people would take part in the planned weekday strike. But activists have planned “non-cooperation actions” for the busy subway stops of Lai King, Diamond Hill and Fortress Hill at 7:30 a.m., a repeat of last week’s commuter train disruptions.
They also called for striking workers to rally around 1 p.m. in seven different locations across the region: Tuen Mun, Tseun Wan, Tai Po, Sha Tin, Mong Kok, Wong Tai Sin and Admiralty, which houses government offices. Some protest fliers also called for activists to gather at bus terminals in Kowloon Bay and Lai Chi Kok.
“We think a general strike is a very powerful weapon that can give a blow to the economy and to the Hong Kong government,” said Jaco Lam, an activist handing out fliers supporting the strike at a rally on Sunday. “We think it will be very big, very significant. If it’s 50,000 people or 100,000, it will be an historic event in Hong Kong.”
Ahead of the strike on Monday, some of the financial center’s banks -- including Citigroup Inc. and UBS Group AG -- told employees it was possible to arrange flexible working arrangements as the protests dragged on. The Labour Department on Monday urged employers to remain flexible if staff members couldn’t make it to the office.
The endless demonstrations and unrest have begun to take a toll on the territory’s economy, denting tourism, weighing on retail sales and worsening the island’s economic outlook during a bruising U.S.-China trade war.
“Dear Visitors, our homeland is sick,” said one cardboard sign in an espresso shop in the city’s Admiralty neighborhood. “Thank you for your understanding. We promise you a Hong Kong at her best on your next visit.”
On Sunday afternoon, many at a political rally in the city’s western Kennedy Town neighborhood drummed up support for the work stoppage. Activists called for everyone from market workers and IT professionals to bankers and lawyers to walk off the job.
The strike is part of a recent burst of non-stop demonstrations that began with a gathering of financial professionals on Thursday evening in the central business district and was followed by a gathering of civil servants on Friday.
On Sunday, protesters shattered windows by throwing projectiles into the Tseung Kwan O police station, the police said. In another part of the city, a large crowd that left a peaceful gathering in Kennedy Town clashed briefly with riot police outside the central Chinese government’s liaison office.
After volleys of tear gas, the protesters decided to leave the area, jumping on the city’s subway to travel to the popular Causeway Bay shopping area. There protesters threw bricks at police, who fired back with more tear gas. As they rode the subway, the protesters chanted in support of Monday’s strike.
“If you are at the scene and you feel the atmosphere, you will understand that the young protesters, they are so determined,” said Ted Hui, an opposition lawmaker after a crowd was tear gassed. “No one can stop them.”
It was yet another sign of the leaderless protest movement’s ability to quickly change tactics and the difficulty police face in containing their movement. They have tried denying permits to march and have attempted to confine demonstrations to particular parks or stationary rallies.
With clashes increasingly violent and regular, the animosity between protesters and police continues to grow. Moderate activists have sided with the radical protesters despite the clashes, brick-throwing and violence.
“I’d like to see a peaceful way to engage with the government, but the government is forcing this way onto people,” said Danny Yuen, a 61-year-old church secretary who attended a rally on Sunday.
As the protests grow more violent, activists say the potential for a serious injury -- even death -- is increasingly likely. However, they blame the government and aggressive police tactics for inflaming tensions.
“The government hasn’t been listening to our demands, they’re forcing us to come out into the streets,” said one 25-year-old electrician, who only gave his surname Poon. He said he joined the protests after seeing footage of thugs beating up activists and ordinary citizens alike in the suburb of Yuen Long.
“I’m not afraid of dying,” Poon said as he stood in black clothes and a black face mask. “If anyone gets injured or killed, it’s the responsibility of the police.”