HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters are close to creating a “very dangerous situation,” the city’s leader warned Monday as train travel and international flights in the global financial hub were thrown into chaos.
The efforts to lock down Hong Kong’s transport sector on Monday were part of a rare general strike, which the protesters pushed to emphasize they still had broad public support following two months of increasingly violent unrest.
In a rare public appearance since the crisis began, chief executive Carrie Lam warned protesters she would not buckle under the growing pressure.
“(They) have seriously undermined Hong Kong’s law and order and are pushing our city, the city that we all love and many of us helped to build, to the verge of a very dangerous situation,” Lam said.
She later referenced chants by protesters for a “revolution,” describing this as a challenge to the “one country, two systems” framework under which Hong Kong has been ruled since it returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
“I dare say they are trying to destroy Hong Kong,” said Lam, who was appointed by a pro-Beijing committee.
She spoke shortly after activists descended on subway stations during the morning rush hour, deliberately keeping open doors to stop trains departing and paralyzing large parts of a network that millions of people use daily.
Simultaneous rallies were on Monday afternoon launched across Hong Kong — the most spread out day of protests yet — with crowds filling up parks, public squares and a shopping mall.
Police said they used tear gas to disperse one group of protesters in a residential district, with more violence expected in the evening.
The strike — a rare occurrence in a freewheeling finance hub where unions traditionally have little sway — hit the vital aviation sector.
More than 160 flights at the city’s airport — one of the world’s busiest — were listed as canceled on Monday afternoon.
Many disrupted flights were with Cathay Pacific.
The carrier did not give a reason for the cancellations, but its flight attendants union confirmed some of its members had walked out.
“Over the last 50 days, the government has been ignoring the demands of the people and using only police force to try to suppress voices, causing countless Hong Kong people to despair,” the union said in a statement on its Facebook page.
Some key roads were also blockaded, causing gridlock.
Many shops across the city were shuttered, including fashion outlets in the central commercial district such as Topshop and Zara.
People from all walks of life had indicated plans online to either strike or phone in sick on Monday — from civil servants and social workers, to bus drivers and even employees of the city’s Disneyland.
The strike led to some scuffles between angry commuters and protesters at crowded subway lines, while various other scenes circulated across social media highlighting tensions throughout the city.
One video showed a car smashing its way through a protester roadblock in the northern town of Yuen Long.
But while some commuters were angered by the disruptions, others said they supported the action.
“As long as the government doesn’t respond then for sure the movement will escalate,” a civil servant, who gave his surname as Leung, said as he tried to make his way to work.
The past fortnight has seen a surge in violence from both sides, with police repeatedly firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse increasingly hostile projectile-throwing crowds.
Police have arrested 420 protesters since June 9 on charges including rioting, unlawful assembly, possessing offensive weapons and assaulting officers and obstructing police operations.
Police spokeswoman Yolanda Yu Hoi-kwan told reporters Monday that police have fired more than 300 non-lethal bullets and around 1,000 tear gas grenades.
Yu said 139 officers had been injured in clashes, with two still hospitalized with fractures.
She said violence has been escalating, with protesters using gasoline bombs and fire, including sending a trolley full of burning trash hurtling toward officers.
A group of men suspected to be linked to triads — Hong Kong’s notorious gangsters — have also attacked demonstrators, putting 45 people in hospital.
Rioting charges carry a jail term of 10 years.
“Support for the political strike today seems strong and it’s been bolstered further by the escalating violence between the police and protesters,” said political analyst Dixon Wong.
The protests were triggered by opposition against a planned law that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.
It quickly evolved into a wider movement for democratic reform and a halt to eroding freedoms.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover deal with Britain, Hong Kong has rights and liberties unseen on the Chinese mainland, including an independent judiciary and freedom of speech.
But many say those rights are being curtailed.
Chinese authorities have in public largely left Hong Kong’s government to deal with the crisis, although they have begun to issue their own warnings.
China’s military last week described the unrest as “intolerable” and released a propaganda video showing a drill of troops quashing a protest in Hong Kong.