Hong Kong Strikes, and Strikes a Nerve in Beijing

A protester blocking a train door during a general strike in Hong Kong on Monday. Credit Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
A protester blocking a train door during a general strike in Hong Kong on Monday. Credit Anthony Wallace/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Anyone who thought that the antigovernment demonstrations rocking Hong Kong this summer were just the doing of radicalized youngsters should think again. On Monday, the first general strike in the city in about 50 years brought the territory to a near-halt. The protesters making front page news are supported by Hong Kongers from all walks of life, whether or not they, too, take to the streets.

Hong Kong’s labor laws allow strikes only against one’s employer, not for general political causes. Yet the Confederation of Hong Kong Trade Unions announced that more than 350,000 people participated, calling in sick or taking the day off. Mass transportation, normally efficient and reliable, became an unnavigable morass of cancellations and delays — a rarity even during the worst typhoons. Buses and underground trains came to a complete stop at various times during the day.

People jammed traffic by driving in circles at roundabouts, extra slowly; others propped train doors open with umbrellas. Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s main airline, canceled most of its short-haul flights, in particular in and out of mainland China.

Some of those who took part in the strike rarely express political beliefs openly: workers at Disneyland and air traffic controllers, bankers and educators, even civil servants, who by law are required to remain neutral politically. The Hong Kong Jockey Club, which has a government-granted monopoly on gambling, stopped taking bets early and allowed employees to skip work. Some of the city’s glitziest malls kept their front doors open even though most of their luxury shops were shut, to allow protesters to seek respite from tear gas or charge their phones.

Demonstrations including professionals of all ages took place simultaneously across the territory, in working-class residential neighborhoods as well as shopping areas. As the day wore on, skirmishes erupted in at least eight districts. By nighttime, there were flare-ups in so many places, it was hard to keep up.

There were some street brawls between protesters and members of criminal gangs; police stations were besieged. According to the police, some 800 rounds of tear gas were shot on Monday alone, compared with about 1,000 for all of June and July.

The continued dillydallying of the city’s leaders, who have made very few public appearances — and have sent in the riot police against protesters but hardly have reacted to commuters being assaulted by thugs — has backfired spectacularly. More and more people are inspired to join or support the protesters in various ways, if simply by buying them meals or leaving prepaid tickets at subway stations.

This is not to say that all Hong Kongers are of one mind. Demonstrations in support of the police have taken place regularly, too, if less frequently and with fewer participants. In those rallies, which are never visited by riot police officers, participants stress their support for China, waving Chinese flags and wielding banners that declare their roots in various Chinese cities and provinces. The fault line running through Hong Kong is, more and more, about how much the city should be allowed to maintain its distinct identity or be refashioned as China’s Hong Kong.

On Tuesday, Yang Guang, the spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing, held his office’s second news conference since the beginning of the crisis more than two months ago. Previously, the office had only one in more than two decades, after Britain handed control of Hong Kong to China in 1997.

Mr. Yang didn’t address any of the protesters’ grievances or demands, such as the withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill that set off the unrest or an independent inquiry into police brutality. The mainland authorities repeated their support for the city’s chief executive and the police. They strongly condemned the violence — by protesters, that is — calling them “reckless violent groups” who will “pay the price if they play with fire.” They admonished, patronizingly, that all this striking and demonstrating was damaging Hong Kong’s economy.

“Do not mistake our restraint as being soft,” Mr. Yang also said. “Do not underestimate the central government’s determination in maintaining stability.” It was a veiled threat, and an admission of weakness, too. One of the most powerful governments in the world is acting as though it would come unmoored if it made any concession to popular demands. China seems as fragile as only a truly authoritarian government can be.

Ilaria Maria Sala is an Italian journalist based in Hong Kong.

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