HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s subway system has closed early for more than a week, effectively cutting off the main mode of transportation for millions of residents. Many are now wondering how long it will last.
Following unprecedented vandalism on the night of Oct. 4, when Chief Executive Carrie Lam banned face masks after invoking emergency powers last used in 1967, many stations were left in tatters. The rail operator MTR Corp. shut the entire network for a whole day for the first time since 2007 before gradually reopening damaged stations.
The MTR has said it needs extra time to repair its stations. But as the service keeps getting curtailed, protesters have accused the company of helping the authorities prevent further demonstrations. In recent statements, the MTR has cited a “joint risk assessment with other relevant government departments” as a reason for the closures.
“Hong Kong has a de facto curfew,” said a medical professional with the surname Wong, who said his commute from Kowloon City to Tin Shui Wai near the Chinese border recently took him 3.5 hours when an early closure prevented him from taking the subway. “It is not enforced by law, but by a monopoly on transportation.”
For most of the time since protests against China’s increasing grip over Hong Kong began in early June, it was entirely possible for many city residents to continue their daily lives uninterrupted apart from some inconvenience during the weekends. But the disruption to the MTR, the lifeblood of the city, has started to alter life in the Asian financial hub.
The subway handles roughly 5.9 million daily passengers in a city of around 7.5 million. Even though many stations have reopened, they still have extensive damage to escalators, turnstiles, security cameras and ticket machines.
In an emailed response to questions, Hong Kong’s Transport and Housing Bureau called the subway “the backbone of the city’s public transport network” and “of paramount importance.”
The MTR “has taken all possible means to ensure railway safety while striving to maintain train service as far as possible,” the bureau said. The company’s arrangements “cannot in any way be equated or compared with the imposition of curfew.”
Numerous major events — from investment conferences to concerts — have been canceled due to the protests, prompting the local economy to slip toward recession. Hong Kong is likely to remain tense ahead of a major policy address on Wednesday from Lam, whose popularity is near record lows.
Police said a radio-controlled improvised explosive device was detonated on Sunday evening near a police car in an effort to “kill and seriously harm” officers, the first time one has been used since the unrest began. A protester also slashed a police officer in the neck.
“The escalating violence and the use of these homemade bombs and also the very deadly attacks on policemen, it just gives us even stronger determination to end the violence,” Lam told reporters Tuesday. “We should consider every means to end the violence.”
The MTR’s early closures, the increased violence and the denial of police permits for demonstrations have caused numbers to fall at recent protests, Steve Vickers, the former head of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau, wrote in a threat assessment on Monday.
“Support for the protesters, their cause, and even for violence, is strong in some sectors of Hong Kong society, such as amongst some medical staff and other professionals, but may be waning on the broader front by workers who are now suffering inconvenience,” wrote Vickers, chief executive of Steve Vickers and Associates, a political and corporate risk consultancy.
During the early weeks and months of the protests, the MTR largely stayed open. However, as police began refusing permission for large rallies, protesters began launching spontaneous demonstrations by disappearing into the MTR network and reappearing at a new location — sometimes on the other side of the city. The MTR also allowed protesters an efficient route to and from the protests, with many changing outfits before commuting home.
But as the MTR began accommodating the government and riot police, protesters began targeting subway stations. They tried to delay subway cars at the height of morning commutes and later vandalized some stations to the point that they were shut down. Hong Kong’s police were also criticized by the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights for firing tear gas inside the enclosed area of a station.
‘Do you see anyone?’
The closures have contributed to a downturn in business across the city. Roughly 100 restaurants have been forced to close throughout the unrest, leaving around 2,000 employees without jobs, Hong Kong Finance Secretary Paul Chan wrote in a blog post over the weekend.
Bonnae Gokson, who runs the luxury restaurant SEVVA on the top floor of the Prince’s Building in Hong Kong’s central financial district, has seen her business suffer. After a $1.3 million renovation, her restaurant reopened just a few days after some of the worst violence on Oct. 1, when a protester was shot for the first time, and people have been staying home.
One recent afternoon, only eight customers sat in her cavernous 22,000 square-foot restaurant, which has a large patio with views over Hong Kong’s gleaming skyscrapers and iconic harbor. She said the MTR’s trimmed back schedule, constant mobile alerts from police and a general sense of economic malaise is keeping people away.
“Normally, I can tell you at this hour, 4:30 p.m., my goodness, this place is packed,” she said. “Do you really see anyone now?”
The unpredictability is part of what’s keeping everyone away. Tourist arrivals in August were down 40 percent from a year earlier, the biggest year-over-year decrease since the SARS epidemic in 2003, as people cancel or revise travel plans.
Hong Hao, the chief strategist at Bocom International, said the protests constantly disrupt his work schedule, which often requires him to do TV interviews in Causeway Bay or Wan Chai late in the evening.
The tendency for protests to escalate in the evening and the fact that demonstrators frequently attack MTR stations are a great inconvenience for him and his colleagues, Hong said, noting that taxi drivers sometimes refuse to give them a ride.
“Whenever there’s a protest we have to cancel plans because the situation can get quite intense,” said Hong, who has lived in the city for eight years. “People are scared.