Hong Kong protesters disrupt MTR services, declare ‘dawn of anti-epidemic’ strikes over government’s handling of Wuhan coronavirus outbreak

Kanis Leung

Small groups of radical protesters in Hong Kong disrupted road traffic and rail services to mainland China on Wednesday morning in a reminder that the anti-government campaign of the past seven months was far from over.

Police said they arrested 17 people, including 12 aged below 18 years, in different districts.

Protesters declared a new wave of strikes over the government’s rejection of their demands for a total closure of the city’s borders to shut out the Wuhan coronavirus.

There was no mass response to calls from anti-government activists for citywide action, but small groups targeted public transport, with a train driver reporting a fire near the tracks of the East Rail line, which links Kowloon with the mainland.

Earlier, protesters had promised the “dawn of anti-epidemic” action if the government did not close all of Hong Kong’s borders in response to the coronavirus epidemic, which has killed more than 130 on the mainland.

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The disruption came a day after the government revealed it would reduce cross-border travel with the rest of China through measures such as the suspension of new travel permits to individual mainland tourists and the shutdown of the Hong Kong section of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link and the through trains running between Hung Hom and the mainland.

With many businesses allowing employees to work from home to avoid exposure to the disease, the protests were only sparsely attended and did not cause any serious disruptions.

A burning object was seen on the track near University station at about 7am, according to a report filed with police.

The MTR Corporation said a train driver spotted a fire next to the track, which he believed had been started by trespassers. Train services were disrupted for around 15 minutes.

The city’s rail operator later announced that trains on the East Rail line were running slower than usual because people had accessed the tracks near Chinese University.

Objects were also found along the line near several other stations, the MTR said, including between Fanling and Sheung Shui.

The operator asked passengers to allow an extra 10 to 15 minutes for their East Rail journeys.

A bike was among the items dumped on the East Rail line between Fanling and Sheung Shui stations. Photo: Handout

The MTR also reported a train driver spotting a traffic cone on a section of track between Fo Tan and University stations at around 6am.

“The train needed to stop and allow staff to clear the track. To play it safe, all passengers on the train had to get off and transfer to the next train at University station,” it said.

At around 8.30am, the rail operator announced East Rail services would gradually return to normal.

Police said they had detained 17 people on suspicion of possession of offensive weapons and other items meant for unlawful use.

“The force made deployments in different places in advance, so there were no serious traffic disruptions,” a spokesman said.

The police Facebook page showed a video of four black-clad protesters smashing the windscreen of a bus near Lion Rock Tunnel in Sha Tin, forcing the vehicle to stop.

The force also said a petrol bomb was thrown into the police station in Tin Shui Wai.

Attempts to block roads or rail were also made in Yuen Long, Tai Po, Sheung Shui and Sai Wan Ho.

A second protest, planned for lunch time, in Central, only attracted about 10 black-clad people marching in the IFC mall, chanting “five demands, not one less”, and singing the protest anthem Glory to Hong Kong.

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Apart from the rail service suspensions – announced by the government on Tuesday and effective from midnight on Thursday – flights to and from the mainland would be cut by half and cross-border bus services reduced.

But Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor stopped short of the total closure of the city’s borders demanded by legislators from across the political spectrum.

Wednesday’s low-level strike action came with Hong Kong in the grip of anti-government unrest, sparked last June by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.

The protests, which often descend into violence, have since morphed into a wider set of anti-government grievances, fuelled by allegations of police brutality and the campaign for more democracy.

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