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Hong Kong Crippled Again as Anxiety Builds Over China’s Next Move

Shelly Banjo and Iain Marlow

(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong was left crippled for a fourth straight day, as protests paralyzed parts of the city and residents questioned how much longer they could endure the disruptions.

The unrest on Thursday prompted companies to tell employees to work from home while some train lines were suspended, major events were canceled and public schools were closed through Sunday. Speculation spread about measures the government might take to stop the violence after Chief Executive Carrie Lam held a late-night meeting on Wednesday with top officials.

The disruption of a complete work week marked an escalation in pro-democracy protests that started in June against a bill that would allow extraditions to China for the first time. The violence this week led to clashes in the main Central financial district and prompted several top universities to cancel or amend classes for the remainder of the semester.

Markets were rattled Thursday after China’s state-run Global Times tweeted that Hong Kong was expected to impose a curfew for the weekend to curtail the violence. While the paper deleted its tweet not long after it was posted, the Hang Seng Index fell to its lowest close in a month.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo called the report of a curfew “fake news,” while Lam’s office didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. Chief Superintendent Tse Chun-chung said the Hong Kong police weren’t in a position to comment on curfews as the authority to direct a curfew order rests with the chief executive.

It’s unclear how effective a curfew would be at keeping protesters home and quelling the unrest -- and whether the police force has the manpower to fully enforce it. A face mask ban implemented last month using emergency powers failed to quell the unrest, and hasn’t been widely enforced.

The city’s No. 2 official, Matthew Cheung, said Thursday that Lam’s late-night meeting had no specific purpose and was held later than usual to accommodate attendees’ busy schedules, Radio Television Hong Kong said. He said the government supplemented its police force with some 100 officers from the Hong Kong Correctional Services Department to serve as “special police” on a voluntary basis.

Secretary for Security John Lee told the Legislative Council that Hong Kong hasn’t used army or police forces from mainland China but didn’t rule the option out. When asked to clarify the statement later, a spokeswoman for the security bureau didn’t address employing police from mainland China and referred to the earlier decision to appoint Hong Kong’s correctional officers.

Citywide Closures

Meanwhile, clashes persisted at universities in Hong Kong, with some schools in Sweden and the U.K. urging their students to come home. Police fired tear gas earlier Thursday near Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Kowloon, which said along with the University of Hong Kong that it would cancel most classes for the rest of the semester.

“We don’t know when we can open the university again because of the traffic disruptions and damage to school property,” PolyU spokeswoman Eunice Ol Cheng said. “We understand that some foreign students will need to go home due to the current situation.”

There was also a flurry of announcements for closures and cancellations of conferences, concerts and other events -- including a large industry airline conference hosted by Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. That’s likely to further dent the city’s all-important tourism and retail sectors, which have already been hit by months of unrest.

The value of Hong Kong’s retail sales tumbled 18% year-on-year in September, based on the latest official data available, while visitor numbers dropped 34%. The government is due to release final third-quarter economic data Friday afternoon, and a 2.9% contraction is expected.

‘Very Worrisome’

“What we are witnessing is very worrisome,” said Yiu Si-wing, a pro-establishment lawmaker from the tourism sector.

Bystanders are getting caught in the fray, with a 10-month-old baby among the 67 people admitted to the hospital as a result of the clashes. On Wednesday, police arrested 224 people aged between 14 and 69, and fired 578 rounds of tear gas, Senior Superintendent Kong Wing-cheung said Thursday at a regular police briefing.

“We kept asking the government to use political solutions to solve the problem, but they just used police confrontation and the result is that hatred has been accumulated to a level that it’s now hard to bring down,” said Ivan Choy, a politics professor from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “I don’t see a way out.”

--With assistance from Will Davies, Blake Schmidt, Natalie Lung and Dominic Lau.

To contact the reporters on this story: Shelly Banjo in Hong Kong at sbanjo@bloomberg.net;Iain Marlow in Hong Kong at imarlow1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Daniel Ten Kate at dtenkate@bloomberg.net, Karen Leigh

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