(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s biggest concession yet to protesters did little to stem scenes of violence that have become the norm on weekends in the Asian financial hub.
Small pockets of demonstrators on Sunday set fires, vandalized subway stations and set up barricades downtown after tens of thousands marched peacefully to the U.S. consulate to appeal for help from President Donald Trump. Riot police cleared roads and subway stations, fired tear gas near the Sogo department store in the Causeway Bay shopping district and made arrests of black-clad protesters wearing masks and hardhats.
By Monday morning, Hong Kong was operating largely as normal, even as hundreds of students joined hands and formed human chains in protest in parts of the city. Authorities had reopened the main subway stations downtown and in Kowloon, which saw busy tourist and residential areas hit by similar clashes on Saturday.
The dramatic images in the heart of Hong Kong served as the latest reminder that three months of demonstrations against China’s grip over the city are unlikely to end soon. They are having an increasing impact on the economy, with visitor arrivals to Hong Kong falling nearly 40% from the same period last year and occupancy rates of hotels in some districts falling by more than half.
“The most worrying thing is that the situation is not likely to turnaround in the near future,” Financial Secretary Paul Chan said in a Sunday blog post in which he disclosed the figures.
Lam last week said she would formally withdraw a bill allowing extraditions to the mainland, which triggered the unrest in early June. But demonstrators now have a host of other demands, and Beijing has ruled out the biggest one: the right to elect a leader of their choosing.
China’s strategy now is to root out the peaceful demonstrators from those participating in violence. So far, they have left the job to Hong Kong’s police. Any use of China’s military threatens to undermine the autonomy that underpins the city’s special trading status with the U.S. -- a policy crucial to its economy.
“Protesting is not the issue,” Bernard Chan, convener of the city’s Executive Council and a top Lam adviser, said in an interview on Friday before the latest demonstrations. “The issue is those violent acts.”
Chan said China has outlined “three bottom lines”: any moves that harm China’s security of national sovereignty, challenge the power of the central government and the Basic Law, or take advantage of Hong Kong to infiltrate and damage the mainland.
Before Sunday devolved into running confrontations between police and protesters, demonstrators waving American flags urged U.S. lawmakers to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. The measure would impose sanctions on officials involved in abductions and require the State Department to annually re-assess whether the city remains autonomous.
“If the U.S. can sanction China, it might save us,” said one of the marchers, who would only give his name as Harvey.
Later in the evening, the main subway line in downtown Hong Kong was closed along with major boulevards, snarling traffic and making it difficult to access major hotels. Television images showed police detaining dozens of protesters who were lined up against walls with their hands folded behind their backs. At least five entrances to the rail station in Central were targeted by protesters, who started a fire at one and smashed windows and sprayed graffiti at others.
Joshua Wong, one of the most prominent anti-government figures, was arrested again on Sunday at the city’s airport for breaching bail conditions. Local station Television Broadcasts Limited reported Monday that there had been a mistake in the terms of bail and Wong continued to be free, citing the judge in his court hearing.
For many protesters, it was important to keep the world engaged in the fight for democracy.
“It’s very important and crucial that we raise international awareness,” said a 35-year-old in the tech industry who gave his surname Chan. “Hong Kong is such an important international hub for everything so it only makes sense to have international stakes.”
(Updates with student protest in third paragraph.)
--With assistance from Natalie Lung.
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