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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong strikes disrupt hundreds of flights amid growing unrest

Chief executive warns that political crisis is becoming 'very dangerous situation'

Protesters in Hong Kong distrupt the morning rush hour by blocking train and platform doors to prevent trains from leaving stations on Monday. Most of the city's 11 rail lines, including the link to the airport, were partly suspended.   © AP

HONG KONG -- Hong Kong was plunged deeper into political crisis on Monday, with a massive citywide strike, more demonstrations and protesters disrupting train services during the morning rush-hour.

An estimated 300,000 workers, roughly 8% of the city’s total labor force, went on strike on Monday, according to the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the pro-democratic party behind the strike. It estimated about 200,000 people had turned up to the seven gatherings later in the afternoon.

Large-scale strikes rippled across industries, with the aviation sector alone seeing thousands of workers taking part. International travelers were caught off guard, as hundreds of flights were canceled or delayed.

Cathay Pacific Airways canceled about 150 flights on Monday and Tuesday, Hong Kong's leading carrier said. About 1,500 flight attendants at the airline joined the strike, according to an estimate from a person familiar with the matter. The airline has between 5,000 and 6,000 flight attendants working on a normal day.

An official with the Civil Aviation Department said the number of its employees, including air traffic controllers, who called in for sick leave on Monday was slightly higher than usual.

Meanwhile, most of the city's 11 rail lines, including the link to the airport, were partly suspended as some hard-core protesters stopped train doors from closing. Services by the MTR, the city's rail operator, had largely returned to normal by mid-afternoon after leaving many of the city's commuters, who average nearly 5 million on a daily basis, stranded.

Protesters later gathered at seven districts across Hong Kong. The demonstrations turned violent in several locations, with police firing tear gas to disperse the crowds.

An elderly woman is helped by a demonstrator after police fired tear gas during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Monday in support of a citywide strike and to call for democratic reforms.   © Reuters

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, speaking at a morning news conference, warned that the violent acts of a smaller number of activists had undermined the city's law and order and were pushing it into a "very dangerous situation."

Lam, who became emotional at one point, said the recent demonstrations had escalated significantly and gone beyond the original intention of protesters expressing demands over a controversial extradition bill.

But she did not respond to any of the five key demands by the protesters, including a complete retraction of the now-suspended bill and the setting up of an independent inquiry into allegations of excessive police force.

Paul Chan, Hong Kong's financial secretary, on Monday warned of a possible economic recession amid the political unrest and uncertainties related to the U.S.-China trade war.

"The demonstrations in the past two months have already had an impact on the economy," Chan said, citing store closures during the protests. He said the political turmoil was adding to the problems the city is facing from a volatile external environment.

"Our economy has already lost its growth momentum," Chan said. In the second quarter, the economy contracted by 0.3% from the previous quarter. "If the negative growth continues in the third quarter, we'll be technically entering a recession," he said.

Hong Kong saw further evidence of weaker economic growth on Monday.

The IHS Markit Hong Kong Purchasing Managers' Index survey for July fell to its lowest level in a decade. The index sank to 43.8 last month, down from 47.9 in June, signaling the "steepest deterioration in the health of the private sector since March 2009," it said. A reading below 50 represents contraction.

Last week, the government reported that retail sales slumped 6.7% in June from a year earlier, as massive street protests against the extradition bill weighed on consumption.

Hong Kong's benchmark Hang Seng Index tumbled 2.9% on Monday, pushed lower by the political developments and concerns over the escalating trade war.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, with other city officials, attends a news conference on Monday morning. "I don’t think at this point in time, resignation of myself and some of my colleagues will provide a better solution," she said.   © Reuters

Lam said at the news conference that the nature of the protests had changed and she dismissed calls for her resignation.

"It's time for me to continue to lead my team to address those problems and try to bring Hong Kong out of the current difficult situation," she said. "I don't think at this point in time, the resignation of myself and some of my colleagues will provide a better solution."

Her comments came after another weekend of tense standoffs between police and protesters in several districts across the city, with tear gas fired and main roads, including the heavily traveled Cross Harbour Tunnel, briefly blocked.

The city's police department said on Monday that since large-scale protests began in early June, 420 people had been arrested, more than 1,000 cans of tear gas has been fired, 160 rubber bullets had been used and 139 police officers injured.

Meanwhile, 461 people have been sent to hospital for accident and emergency treatment during the clashes between police and protesters since June 9, according to a spokesman at Hong Kong Hospital Authority.

The escalated protests on Monday have also prompted Beijing to take further action on Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, Beijing’s top body for overseeing the city’s matters under the State Council, will hold another press conference on Tuesday, a week after it voiced support for the Hong Kong government and the police.  

Meanwhile, two Hong Kong representatives at China’s top political advisory body, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, confirmed to Nikkei that they had received an invitation letter to attend a briefing in Shenzhen co-hosted by Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office and Central Government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

Many commuters expressed exasperation over Monday's disrupted services.

"I am not feeling good about [the strike]," a local property consultant, who only gave his English name of Roy, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "It means reduced working time and affected efficiency."

He said that it took him three and a half hours to travel from his home in Ma On Shan in the outlying New Territories to his office in East Tsim Sha Tsui, a business district in bustling Kowloon, a journey that normally takes roughly 50 minutes. "The economy [should be] the most important issue, rather than freedom at the moment in Hong Kong," he said.

Chan Wai-yin, an art industry worker, told Nikkei that two-thirds of the employees at her company went on strike, using their annual leave. "I am very disappointed that the government and Carrie Lam continued to ignore the demands of the people. I want to strike to further express my dissatisfaction," she said.

Chan said that Lam's remarks at the news conference angered her further. "She was just repeating what she said before without taking any action."

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