Hong Kong Protestors Move to Shut Down Financial Hub with General Strike

By Iain Marlow and Shawna Kwan | August 5, 2019

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam warned of a “very dangerous situation” as protesters moved to shut down the Asian financial hub with a general strike on Monday after a ninth straight weekend of unrest in opposition to China’s tightening grip.

Demonstrators hampered the financial hub’s busy morning commute with actions that left traffic snarled, subway lines inoperable and airport operations disrupted. 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.

“We have seen some behavior from protesters that is challenging ‘one country, two systems’ and threatening national sovereignty,” Lam told reporters on Monday, flanked by senior members of her administration. “And I could even dare to say some are trying to ruin Hong Kong and completely destroy the livelihood of seven million citizens.”

Protesters began rallying from 1 p.m. in locations across the city. In the central business district, hundreds of mostly black-shirted people walked from the packed Admiralty metro station to Tamar Park near Hong Kong’s legislative complex. They chanted “strike!” and passed out bright yellow fliers that read: “No extraditions to China; strike work, strike school and strike market.”

The MSCI Hong Kong Index slumped as much as 3.5% on Monday in a ninth day of declines, matching the longest streak since the city’s 1997 handover from British rule. Landlords, retail stocks and casinos bore the brunt of the selling.

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 Lam, who has resisted demands to withdraw the bill completely and step down from her position.

“I came here to support the young people,” said C.F Tse, who works in accounting and said he asked for sick leave in order to protest in Tamar Park on Monday. “It’s heartbreaking to see them being beaten up and getting tear gassed.”

The unrest has hit the city’s economy, denting tourism and retail sales to worsen the pain from the U.S.-China trade war. The IHS Markit PMI for Hong Kong sank to 43.8 in July from 47.9 a month earlier. That’s its lowest reading since March 2009, when the fallout from the global financial crisis was still raging. Financial Secretary Paul Chan warned Monday that the city risks a recession as protests continue.

‘No Real End in Sight’

“The problem now is there is no real end in sight as to what the end game is for the protests,” said Sean Darby, global equity strategist at Jefferies Hong Kong. “The disruptions that are occurring now both to travel and the people shopping or even coming into Hong Kong are starting to make quite a big impact on the economy.”

Lam on Monday didn’t make any new concessions to protesters, saying she didn’t think her resignation — one of their key demands — would provide a resolution to the unrest. She also called them a threat to national security.

“Such extensive disruptions in the name of certain demands or uncooperative movement have seriously undermined Hong Kong’s law and order and are pushing our city — the city we all love, and many of us helped to build — to the verge of a very dangerous situation,” she said.

Hong Kong police recently began slapping protesters with colonial-era rioting charges in a bid to deter large numbers of protesters, and anxiety is growing that Beijing might call in the People’s Liberation Army, which released a video last week showing troops practicing riot control.

Protesters had called for “non-cooperation actions” at the busy metro stops of Lai King, Diamond Hill and Fortress Hill on Monday morning, a repeat of last week’s disruptions. Service on nearly all of the city’s metro lines was interrupted, though resumed by early afternoon.

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 strike is the final leg of nonstop demonstrations that began with a “flash mob” protest by financial professionals on Thursday, followed by a gathering of civil servants on Friday and a march in the crowded Mong Kok shopping district on Saturday. On Sunday, police fired off tear gas at protesters in the shopping district of Causeway Bay as activists jammed traffic by blocking the Cross Harbor Tunnel that connects Hong Kong Island with Kowloon.

While some commuters shouted expletives at the protesters, many also expressed sympathy with the cause.

“I am fine with the disruptions though I don’t think the government cares as much,” said Peter Lee, who works for a brokerage, after he failed to get a train from Sham Shui Po station and instead hopped a 30 minute bus ride to the Star Ferry. “The strikes will have little impact to force the government make moves, but I am still supportive.”

–With assistance from Alfred Liu, Sebastian Chau, Natalie Lung, James Ludden, Enda Curran, Cathy Chan and Sheryl Tian Tong Lee

Photograph: Demonstrators gather on Gloucester Road to block traffic during a protest in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong, China, on Sunday, Aug. 4, 2019, marking the ninth week of civil unrest in the Asian financial capital. Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg.

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