HONG KONG—At the end of a recent pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong, two masked protesters turned their attention to what has become a new target for demonstrators: the city’s subway system.Armed with a metal rod, they attacked a window at an aboveground entrance to Central Station—next to an office tower and among city parks—while a group of reporters looked on. Later, protesters hurled rocks at the glass. Down the street among luxury shops, demonstrators lighted a fire in front of another station entrance.Even an institution so central to daily life in Hong Kong as the subway is finding it difficult to navigate the city’s increasingly polarized political atmosphere.
For weeks this summer, the hyper-efficient and super-clean MTR—after its initial name, Mass Transit Railway—was an important asset for hit-and-run protesters, providing a quick way to move from place to place and escape police.
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But protesters turned strongly against subway operator MTR Corp. in late August, when the company got a court order to help it prevent vandalism and interference at its stations, signaling a tougher stance against the demonstrators. That same day an English-language column in the Global Times, a state-run tabloid in China, criticized the subway operator for assisting protesters, feeding protester suspicions that the company was feeling pressure from Beijing. Since then, the company has frequently shut down stations near demonstration sites. Protesters accuse the subway operator, 75%-owned by the Hong Kong government, of aligning with the authorities. They have called for a boycott of the system and protests at malls and other properties owned by MTR. Tensions have been further inflamed by video posted online that shows police beating people in a subway car. Protesters have berated MTR for not releasing all of the station surveillance footage from Aug. 31, the day of the alleged beating.
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Earlier this month, an image circulated on social media of the giant MTR logo on a downtown building, with the words “Murderer Transit Railway” projected below it. Others have called the train system “Communist Party rail,” which rhymes with the MTR’s name in Cantonese. Last weekend alone at least nine stations were heavily vandalized—entry and exit gates, ticket machines and surveillance cameras smashed by small groups of hard-core protesters. At a station where riot police had recently deployed last weekend, a man surnamed
said, “We just try to do whatever we can to hurt them, to let them know that they are serving Hong Kong people, they are not serving the Communists and China.…We should smash all the stations.” Mr. Lung, in his late 20s and not wearing protest gear, said he hasn’t committed any vandalism himself. He added later that he’s not happy to see stations smashed—but that protesters had previously tried to express their views peacefully. MTR, which is publicly traded, says it closes stations when the safety of passengers and employees is threatened. On Sunday, company Chief Executive
issued an open letter urging an end to vandalism: “At this crucial moment, we wish all sectors of the community could treasure and safeguard this railway network.” The company, which also runs train systems in the U.K., Australia, Sweden and mainland China, didn’t respond to a request for further comment. Hong Kong officials said the government doesn’t interfere in MTR’s operations. As Hong Kong braced for its 15th weekend of unrest, the MTR canceled the all-night service it was to have offered Friday for China’s mid-autumn festival, a major holiday. Also Friday, a government panel upheld a police ban on two pro-democracy assemblies planned for the weekend.
Kathy Yeung said she is boycotting the subway in favor of a bus to work, even though it can take twice as long.
Mike Cherney/The Wall Street Journal
The demonstrations were initially sparked by an extradition bill that would have allowed the city’s government to transfer people accused of crimes into China’s opaque legal system. Hong Kong’s leader eventually pledged to withdraw the bill, but in the interim the focus of protests had broadened. Demonstrators are now calling for democratic reform and investigations of police tactics, which have included the use of tear gas, projectiles and water cannon. On Sunday, tear gas was deployed in a popular shopping district, catching passersby in the plumes. Tear gas has even been fired inside a subway station. By a makeshift memorial at the entrance to the Prince Edward MTR—site of the Aug. 31 incident—a veterinary nurse named
said that she was boycotting the system. She had started commuting to work by bus, though it takes 45 minutes, compared with just 20 to 30 minutes by train. Suspending train service during a protest provides police an excuse for arrests, Ms. Yeung said, because it prevents protesters from leaving. The police can say, “‘You guys are an illegal gathering,’” she said, while protesters say “‘We want to go home, but you don’t let us.’” Ms. Yeung, in her early 30s, held a sign imploring the rail operator to release the Aug. 31 surveillance video.
heading for a train to meet a friend, said he didn’t like the vandalism, adding it will ultimately be riders who pay for it. “There’s no end I can see,” said Mr. Lee, in his late 40s. “It just makes me sad. Not only for the protesters, not [only] for the policemen. I’m kind of sad for both of them.”
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