HONG KONG: A usually busy road in the Central district is pictured mostly empty of people and traffic in the afternoon on Saturday.—AFP
HONG KONG: A usually busy road in the Central district is pictured mostly empty of people and traffic in the afternoon on Saturday.—AFP

HONG KONG: With subway services shut down, the wearing of face masks criminalised at rallies and Hong Kong’s leader reaffirming her determination not to let rioters get the upper hand, anti-government protests that have shaken the city diminished in intensity on Saturday but didn’t stop.

Marchers still came out to defy the new ban on face coverings that the government of the semi-autonomous Chinese territory says have made the identification of violent protesters difficult for police. Shielded under umbrellas, many wearing masks, several hundred demonstrators clogged a thoroughfare in the central business district, carrying a yellow banner marked “Glory to Hong Kong” and shouting, “Hong Kong, resist!”

Scattered gatherings of protesters in masks popped up elsewhere, too, with some holding hands in a human chain. But protester numbers on Saturday afternoon appeared down from previous weekends when tens of thousands flooded the streets.

A combination of factors seemed to be at work. Some marchers said the protest movement that has plunged Hong Kong into its deepest crisis since its handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997 was merely harboring strength for the long haul.

The closure of the entire MTR network of subway and trains that habitually handles more than 4 million trips a day also caused major disruption to the usually never-resting but now edgy and restive city of 7.5 million people. An express link to Hong Kong international airport also closed for a while before reopening with reduced service Saturday afternoon.

“From MTR to EmptyR,” tweeted activist Joshua Wong, a key player in 2014 protests that foreshadowed the past four months of demonstrations that have snowballed into a sustained flare of anti-government and anti-China fury.

“Can’t go anywhere,” said Kevin Cui, a tourist from mainland China who’d planned to visit Hong Kong Disneyland only to discover at a shuttered subway station that the network was suspended. “This is very troublesome.” Following up on its face-mask ban that went into effect at midnight Friday, the government also hammered home a get-tough message that it would not bow to rioters and appealed for public support after an overnight rash of widespread violence, including arson attacks. Citizens awoke Saturday not only to closed subway stations but also shuttered shops and banks, where lines formed at cash machines.

In a televised address broadcast as protesters again marched in masks, a solemn Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, described Hong Kong as “semi-paralysed” and said, “Everyone is worried, anxious, or even scared.” “The government needs to take drastic measures to say no to violence, restore peace in society, protect citizens’ right to continue their daily lives and freedom, not allowing a small group of rioters to destroy it,” she said.

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.’” Some agreed, even as they continued to blame Lam for sparking the protest movement with a now abandoned measure that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts in mainland China.

Published in Dawn, October 6th, 2019