People march during a protest in Hong Kong, China, August 24, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong anti-government protesters marched in a gritty industrial district of the Chinese-ruled city on Saturday, with some police wearing new black masks looking on, as China freed a British consulate worker whose detention helped fuel tension.
The offshore airport and the roads and railways leading to it were operating normally despite plans by protesters to implement a “stress test” of transport links and disrupt traffic after weeks of unrest in the Chinese-ruled city.
Authorities had taken out a court order to prevent demonstrations at the airport, which was forced to close for part of last week after protesters thronged the main terminal for several days, grounding around 1,000 flights and occasionally clashing with police.
Four MTR subway stations were closed around Kwun Tong, a densely populated area on the east of the Kowloon peninsula, but thousands packed the streets anyway, most carrying umbrellas against the sun despite hazy skies in the former British colony.
Some protesters sat on the ground to stop metal gates closing Kwun Tong station itself as others berated staff for shutting down the trains. Others set up roadblocks with bamboo scaffolding.
“Shame on the MTR,” some shouted. Others complained about increased surveillance. Station shops were closed.
It was not immediately clear why police were wearing the masks, with onlookers wondering if they were a defense against green lasers used by protesters as dusk falls or whether it meant a clash was imminent.
The protests, which began as opposition to a now-suspended bill that would have allowed suspects to be extradited to mainland China, have swelled into wider calls for democracy, plunging the city into an unprecedented crisis and posing a direct challenge for Communist Party leaders in Beijing.
Demonstrators say they are fighting the erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement that enshrines a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong since it was handed back from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
A smaller, pro-government protest, with people waving the purple bauhinia Hong Kong flag, was held outside broadcaster RTHK’s headquarters.
CONSULATE WORKER FREED
British consulate staffer Simon Cheng was detained for 15 days for violating public security management regulations, police in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong, said on their Twitter-like Weibo account.
Police said Cheng was released as scheduled on Saturday and that his legal rights and interests had been observed. They also said Cheng had confessed to accusations against him, a commonly used comment by Chinese police, even though Cheng was not given a chance to defend himself in court.
Cheng had now returned to Hong Kong, his family said on his Facebook page.
No details were given of his detention, with the Facebook post asking the “media and friends to give them some time and space, and we will explain more later”.
Some protesters in recent days had demanded Cheng be released.
The rail shutdown by the MTR Corporation comes after it was criticized in Chinese state media, including the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, for allowing “rioters” to get away on trains after clashes with police.
The MTR had also said on Friday it had been granted an injunction to prevent protesters from disrupting train services. The operator also said that, if “fights, vandalism or other acts of violence occur”, train services at affected stations could be stopped immediately.
Some online protester messaging groups, however, said they might still walk to the protest site or mobilize elsewhere.
“It’s unreasonable that they stop the MTR service ahead of the protest,” said Louis Wong, a protester in the area.
At the airport, all those seeking to enter the terminal had to show valid boarding passes and passports. Train stations feeding the airport, as well as roads to it, were largely clear early on, with a light police presence along some access routes.
Cathay Pacific Airways, which has become the biggest corporate casualty of the protests after China demanded it suspend staff involved in the demonstrations, protested against a planned rally by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions around the airport’s “Cathay City” HQ on Monday.
“We have reminded our people that the injunction granted to the Airport Authority of Hong Kong also covers Cathay City, which is the operational hub for our global operations and as such includes facilities that are absolutely critical to our flight operations,” it said in a statement.
“ ... We have also reiterated to our employees that there is a zero-tolerance approach to any support for or participation in illegal protests, violent activities or overly radical behavior,” it said.
There is no sign of a let-up almost three months after the anti-government demonstrations began. On Friday night, thousands of chanting protesters formed human chains around the city in a peaceful protest dubbed the “Hong Kong Way”.
Organizers said 135,000 people took part in the demonstration, inspired by one in 1989 when an estimated two million people joined arms across three Baltic states in a protest against then-Soviet rule that became known as the “Baltic Way” or “Baltic Chain”.
Friday’s protest, which included people shining lights on sidewalks and atop Kowloon’s Lion Rock mountain, followed warnings from Beijing and city leader Carrie Lam to stop the demonstrations and restore order.
Authorities have so far refused to meet any of the protesters’ five key demands, including calls for an independent inquiry into police brutality, a full withdrawal of the extradition bill, and full democracy.
Organizers are planning a host of protests in the coming weeks including a mass march, a city-wide strike and class boycotts at universities.