HONG KONG >> All subway and train services were suspended and lines formed at the cash machines of shuttered banks as Hong Kong dusted itself off and braced for more protests Saturday after another night of rampaging violence that a new ban on face masks failed to quell.
The closure of the entire MTR network that handles more than 4 million trips a day, including the express line to the Hong Kong international airport, was a major and quite exceptional disruption for the usually never-resting but now edgy and restive territory of 7.5 million people.
“From MTR to EmptyR,” tweeted activist Joshua Wong, a key player in 2014 protests that foreshadowed the past four months of demonstrations. Snowballing into a sustained outburst of anti-government and anti-China fury, the youth-led protests have plunged the international hub for trade and finance into its deepest crisis since the territory reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
“Can’t go anywhere,” said Kevin Cui, a tourist from mainland China who’d planned to visit Disneyland only to discover at a shuttered subway station in central Hong Kong that the network was suspended. “This is very troublesome.”
After widespread overnight arson attacks, looting, fighting with police and beatings, the government on Saturday appealed for a public shift in attitude against rioting.
John Lee, the government’s security secretary, said by not condemning violence, people are stoking it.
“What is adding oil to violence is people’s support for these acts,” he said. “What is important is that everybody comes out to say, ‘No, society will not accept violence.’”
But even many peaceful protesters say violence has become a means to an end, the only way for young masked protesters to force the government to bend.
As a group of black-clad youths in protective gear rushed past him, many carrying bamboo sticks, a property industry worker who came out with his wife Friday night to show his opposition to the mask ban expressed his admiration for those confronting police.
“I know they have done terrible things” he said. “Can you believe how brave they are?”
He gave only his first name, Alex. He and his wife, Pauline, both donned masks that covered their mouths to hit streets in central Hong Kong where clouds of police tear gas to disperse protesters also caused spluttering tourists and Friday night revelers to flee, eyes stinging.
Embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam insisted that criminalizing the wearing of masks at rallies and her use of rarely deployed emergency powers to introduce the ban without legislative approval were not a move toward authoritarian rule or at the behest of the Chinese government.
International observers worried, however, that her resort to the Emergency Ordinance that had lain dormant since last used to quell riots in 1967 could be a harbinger of harsher measures in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory deeply attached to its special freedoms and fearful of becoming a tightly controlled city like all the others in China.
The mask ban went into effect Saturday. Two activists filed legal challenges late Friday on grounds it would instill fear and curtail freedom of assembly, but a court denied their request for an injunction.
Lam announced the measure Friday afternoon as thousands of masked protesters crammed streets in the central business district, with some offices closing early and spilling workers into the demonstrations. Protesters shouted “Hong Kong people, resist!” Under the cover of darkness, masked protesters rampaged, setting fires, setting up makeshift road blocks that backed up traffic and vandalizing subway stations, China-linked business and other property.
An officer fired a single shot from his gun in self-defense after he was attacked by protesters in the northern Yuen Long district, said police spokeswoman Yolanda Yu. She said a man was wounded, but police didn’t know exactly how he got shot. A police official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the news media, said the victim is 14. A Hospital Authority spokesman said the teen was in serious but not critical condition.
The teen became the second victim of gunfire in the protests that began in June. An 18-year-old protester was also shot at close range by a riot police officer on Tuesday.