Hong Kong faced major disruptions to business as general strike paralysed parts of the Asian financial centre, with more than 100 flights cancelled.

Members of a group opposing the anti-government protesters retreat after clashing with people attending a demonstration in support of the city-wide strike and to call for democratic reforms in Hong Kong, China, August 5, 2019.
Members of a group opposing the anti-government protesters retreat after clashing with people attending a demonstration in support of the city-wide strike and to call for democratic reforms in Hong Kong, China, August 5, 2019. (Reuters)

Police fired tear gas at protesters in multiple parts of Hong Kong on Monday after a general strike hit transport and the city's Beijing-backed leader warned its prosperity was at risk. 

The protests surpassed earlier shows of dissent in scale and intensity, seemingly stoked by Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam’s refusal once again to meet any of the protesters' demands, while warning of an "extremely dangerous situation". 

What started several months ago as demonstrations over an extradition bill that would have let people be sent to mainland China for trial have grown into a much broader backlash against the city government and its political masters in Beijing. 

The protests are the greatest political threat to the former British colony’s government since it returned to Chinese rule and one of the biggest popular challenges to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. 

Amid extensive disruptions to trains and traffic, tens of thousands of demonstrators fanned out across Hong Kong, spreading pockets of activism to most of its main three regions: Hong Kong island, Kowloon and the New Territories. 

Police stations were besieged and roads occupied.

In the evening, a group of men armed with sticks tried to attack the black-clad protesters in the North Point district.

Riot police used tear gas in districts including Wong Tai Sin, Tin Shui Wai, Tai Po, and Admiralty close to the city’s government headquarters. 

Speaking to the media for the first time in two weeks, Lam remained defiant, rejecting calls to resign, condemning violence and saying the government would be resolute.

"Such extensive disruptions in the name of certain demands or uncooperative movement has seriously undermined Hong Kong's law and order and are pushing our city, the city that we all love and many of us helped to build, to the verge of a very dangerous situation," chief executive Carrie Lam told reporters. 

TRT World's Francis Collings has this report.

China warnings

The strike –– a rare sight in a freewheeling finance hub where unions traditionally have little sway –– is aimed at showing Beijing that there is still broad public support for a protest movement that keeps hitting the streets but has so far won few concessions.

The protests in the semi-autonomous southern Chinese city were triggered by opposition to a planned extradition law but quickly evolved into a wider movement for democratic reform and a halt to eroding freedoms.

Authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing have signalled a hardening stance with the Chinese military saying it is ready to quell the "intolerable" unrest if requested.

Dozens of protesters have been charged with rioting, a charge with a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail.

Over the weekend, riot police fired tear gas at protesters in multiple districts throughout Saturday and Sunday night.

The largely leaderless protest movement uses social messaging apps to coordinate.

At a press conference on Saturday, strike organisers –– many hiding their identities behind masks –– said 14,000 people from more than 20 sectors had committed to civic action on Monday.

People from all walks of life indicated plans online to either strike or phone in sick on Monday –– from civil servants and social workers to flight attendants, pilots, bus drivers and even employees of the city's Disneyland.

'Psychological barrier'

Given its reputation as a bastion for free-market capitalism, Hong Kong does not have much recent history of successful labour movements.

"There's a psychological barrier for people to strike," protester and pastor Monica Wong, 40, told AFP on Sunday as she attended a large rally. 

"I really understand how some people will face huge pressures from their supervisors."

In a statement late Sunday, Hong Kong's government warned people against joining the strike, saying it could further hamper the city's already sputtering economy. 

"Any large-scale strikes and acts of violence will affect the livelihood and economic activities of Hong Kong citizens," it said. 

Alongside the strike, protesters plan to hold rallies in seven different parts of the city, the fourth day in a row that protests have been scheduled.

The past fortnight has seen a surge in violence on both sides with police repeatedly firing rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse increasingly hostile projectile-throwing crowds.

A group of men suspected to be linked to triads –– Hong Kong's notorious gangsters –– also attacked demonstrators, putting 45 people in hospital.

Under the terms of the 1997 handover deal with Britain, Hong Kong has rights and liberties unseen on the Chinese mainland, including an independent judiciary and freedom of speech.

But many say those rights are being curtailed, citing the disappearance into mainland custody of dissident booksellers, the disqualification of prominent politicians and the jailing of pro-democracy protest leaders.

Public anger has been compounded by rising inequality and the perception that the city's distinct language and culture are being threatened by ever-closer integration with the Chinese mainland.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies