HONG KONG — A general strike in Hong Kong descended into citywide mayhem Monday as defiant protesters started fires outside police stations and hurled bricks and eggs at officers. After disrupting traffic early in the day, they filled public parks and squares in several districts, refusing to disperse even as police repeatedly fired tear gas and rubber bullets from above.
While previous large rallies over the past two months of anti-government protests have generally been held on weekends, Monday’s strike paralyzed city operations in an effort to draw more attention to the movement’s demands.
Hong Kong is on “the verge of a very dangerous situation,” said Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who insisted that she has no plans to resign.
Lam said at a news conference that the protests had “ulterior motives” that threaten Hong Kong’s prosperity and security. “I don’t think at this point in time, resignation of myself or some of my colleagues would provide a better solution,” she said.
Protesters challenged law enforcement in at least eight districts, responding to continuous rounds of tear gas with practiced swiftness. They lobbed the canisters back at police and yelled invectives. When police arrived, the protesters clacked their umbrellas together and pounded on metal street signs, daring the officers to move closer.
“Gangsters!” they jeered at the riot police. “Reclaim Hong Kong, revolution of our time.”
In one neighborhood after nightfall, a band of men wielding wooden poles charged protesters from behind a thin road lane divider. The demonstrators fought back by throwing traffic cones, metal barricades and rods. Hong Kong media also reported a brawl in a different district where men with knives slashed at protesters.
In another neighborhood, demonstrators besieged police headquarters in what they called a “flash mob.” They threw bricks and flaming bottles at the building before rapidly retreating.
The violence followed a day of striking that sparked bedlam throughout the city. Protesters started early, with the aim of hampering the morning rush hour. In the subway, they blocked train and platform doors, activated emergency alarms and threw objects onto the tracks.
A high number of strikers in the airline industry also led to more than 77 flight cancellations, according to the airport authority.
“Too much,” said 52-year-old John Chan, whose flight to Singapore was cancelled. “Why do they have to create trouble for people not involved in their cause? Hong Kong is sinking. The government, police and protest people have to stop fighting and give us a break.”
The strike was the latest action in a summer of fiery demonstrations that began in response to proposed extradition legislation that would have allowed some suspects to be sent to mainland China for trials.
While the government has since suspended the bill, protesters have pressed on with broader calls for it to be scrapped entirely, along with demands for democratic reforms including the dissolution of the current legislature and an investigation into alleged police brutality. In recent weeks, footage has shown police officers beating protesters and ignoring calls for help during a mob attack that left 44 injured in a commuter rail station.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to China in 1997 under a framework of “one country, two systems,” which promised the city certain democratic freedoms not afforded to the mainland. With the arrests of booksellers and activists in recent years, however, some Hong Kong residents feel that Beijing has been eroding their rights.
The Communist Party-led central government in Beijing has condemned what it calls violent and radical protesters who have vandalized the Chinese national emblem and more recently thrown the country’s flag into the iconic Victoria Harbour. China has accused unnamed “foreign forces” of inflaming the demonstrations out of a desire to contain the country’s development.
CCTV, China’s state broadcaster, warned Monday that the “maniacs and thugs” will “pay a price.”
“Please become aware of your errors, turn back from your incorrect path and set down the butcher’s knives,” said an editorial read aloud on the noon news program.
A slick publicity video released last week by the Chinese army garrison regularly stationed in Hong Kong fed speculation that Beijing will deploy the military to quell the mass demonstrations. But Kong Wing-cheung, a police spokesman, said the city’s officers are fully supported by the government and there will be no need to deploy the military.
More than 400 protesters have been arrested since June 9, when a massive march drew more than 1 million people and launched the protest movement. Those being held, who range in age from 14 to 76, face charges including rioting, unlawful assembly, possessing offensive weapons and assaulting officers and obstructing police operations, said spokeswoman Yolanda Yu Hoi-kwan.
Yu said police have used 1,000 tear gas grenades and fired more than 300 non-lethal bullets. More than 100 officers have been injured. Yu added that violence has been escalating, with protesters using gasoline bombs and fire.
“If we continue to tolerate and turn a blind eye to lawless behavior, the consequences will be undesirable for our citizens,” she said.
As demonstrators were marching through a business district Monday afternoon, some separated from the line and stopped to heckle a police officer in a watchtower. One person in a balaclava started throwing bricks at the lookout.
A man on his way home from work peered at the scene with a look of anguish.
The 40-year-old I.T. worker named Edward Chan said he couldn’t go on strike because he feared judgment from his superiors. He added he’s tormented by thoughts of the kind of Hong Kong his 12-year-old daughter will inherit.
Tears welled as he watched the ragtag young protesters stream past in their gas masks and helmets. “If we put them all in jail, how will their parents feel?” he asked. “Where will our future go?”
Story: Yanan Wang and Christopher Bodeen. Royston Chan in Hong Kong contributed to this report.