Hong Kong under 'de facto curfew' as subway system shuts early

MTR staff closing the shutters at Central Station at 10pm on Monday. Hong Kong's rail system has closed early for more than a week, effectively cutting off the main mode of transportation for millions of residents. The rail operator says it needs ext
MTR staff closing the shutters at Central Station at 10pm on Monday. Hong Kong's rail system has closed early for more than a week, effectively cutting off the main mode of transportation for millions of residents. The rail operator says it needs extra time to repair its stations, but protesters have accused the company of helping the authorities prevent further demonstrations. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

HONG KONG • Hong Kong's subway system has closed early for more than a week, effectively cutting off the main mode of transportation for millions of residents. Many are now wondering how long it will last.

Following unprecedented vandalism on the night of Oct 4, when Chief Executive Carrie Lam banned face masks after invoking emergency powers last used in 1967, many stations were left in tatters.

Rail operator MTR Corp shut the entire network for a whole day for the first time since 2007, before gradually reopening damaged stations. It has said it needs extra time to repair its stations. But as the service keeps getting curtailed, protesters have accused the company of helping the authorities prevent further demonstrations.

In recent statements, the MTR has cited a "joint risk assessment with other relevant government departments" as a reason for the closures.

"Hong Kong has a de facto curfew," said a medical professional with the surname Wong, who said his commute from Kowloon City to Tin Shui Wai near the Chinese border recently took him 31/2 hours when an early closure prevented him from taking the subway.

"It is not enforced by law, but by a monopoly on transportation," he added.

The subway handles about 5.9 million daily passengers in a city of around 7.5 million. Even though many stations have reopened, they still have extensive damage to escalators, turnstiles, security cameras and ticket machines.

In an e-mailed response to questions, Hong Kong's Transport and Housing Bureau said the MTR "has taken all possible means to ensure railway safety while striving to maintain train service as far as possible".

The company's arrangements "cannot in any way be equated or compared with the imposition of curfew".

 
 
 

The MTR's early closures, the increased violence and the denial of police permits for demonstrations have caused numbers to fall at recent protests, Mr Steve Vickers, the former head of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau, wrote in a threat assessment on Monday.

"Support for the protesters, their cause, and even for violence, is strong in some sectors of Hong Kong society, such as among some medical staff and other professionals, but may be waning on the broader front among workers who are now suffering inconvenience," wrote Mr Vickers, chief executive of Steve Vickers & Associates, a political and corporate risk consultancy.

During the early weeks and months of the protests, the MTR largely stayed open.

However, as police began refusing permission for large rallies, protesters began launching spontaneous demonstrations by disappearing into the MTR network and reappearing at a new location - sometimes on the other side of the city. The MTR also allowed protesters an efficient route to and from the protests, with many changing outfits before commuting home.

But as the MTR began accommodating the government and riot police, protesters began targeting subway stations.

They tried to delay subway cars at the height of morning commutes and later vandalised some stations to the point that they were shut down.

 
 

Hong Kong's police were also criticised by the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights for firing tear gas inside the enclosed area of a station.

The closures have contributed to a downturn in business across the city.

Some 100 restaurants have been forced to close throughout the unrest, leaving about 2,000 employees without jobs, Hong Kong's Finance Secretary Paul Chan wrote in a blog post over the weekend.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2019, with the headline 'HK under 'de facto curfew' as subway system shuts early'. Print Edition | Subscribe