By Chuin-Wei Yap 

HONG KONG--Tech giant Apple Inc. shut its stores early citywide on Monday, as fears of escalating violence and spiraling lawlessness linked to weekslong protests spurred concern among businesses and the public.

A day after police fired tear gas in clashes with thousands of protesters, Hong Kong remains on edge as officials conceded no ground and activists accused the government of coddling a rise in vigilante justice. In the north of the city, a mob of white-shirted men stormed a subway station late Sunday and beat people whom they blamed for taking part in the earlier antigovernment protests, leaving 45 people injured.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam condemned the violence Monday as she was questioned by reporters about a breakdown in law and order following weeks of antigovernment protests.

"Hong Kong is an extremely safe city and having the rule of law has always been the most important part of society," Mrs. Lam said.

But fears of new clashes in the city's northern districts spread on social media, leading some businesses to close early and fueling concern over the impact of the social turmoil on the economy.

Apple joined a raft of other businesses that chose to shut or send staff home early on Monday. The company opened its first store in Hong Kong in 2011 and is a high-profile anchor for the city's image as an international commercial hub, gracing the Victoria Harbour waterfront in a giant mall where most tourists transit. A spokeswoman for the Cupertino, Calif.-company directed queries to information on store hours on its website.

Five of the semiautonomous region's six Apple stores shut at 4 p.m., five to six hours ahead of normal closing hours. The remaining store was shut all day. Apple's website referred to Monday's arrangement as "special store hours."

At a branch of Abercrombie & Fitch Co.'s Hollister--next to an Apple store in the shopping belt of Causeway Bay--a Hollister employee said some staff were allowed to leave early to get home to Yuen Long, a suburb close to the border with mainland China where the attack at the subway station happened Sunday night.

Estée Lauder Co. at 2:40 p.m. Monday sent a notice to Hong Kong employees, asking those who live in Yuen Long and Tuen Mun, another suburb, to "leave the office as soon as possible," according to an internal email reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Estée Lauder didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

"We continue to monitor the situation in Hong Kong," the email said, advising staff to avoid certain malls in these suburbs.

The unrest rattled Hong Kong's stock market Monday, sending the Hang Seng Index 1.4% lower for the day as traders fretted over rumors of another round of government action to combat protesters. Shares of mall developers led the decline.

At least one luxury-goods retailer, Financiere Richemont SA, said last week that the protests and a stronger Hong Kong dollar hurt its sales in the city, in comparison with strong sales in mainland China.

The antigovernment protests erupted in early June against attempts by Mrs. Lam to force through a law that would allow extradition to mainland China, where the legal system is much more opaque. Protesters' demands now include a litany of democratic freedoms, and increasingly violent clashes have spurred an ever harsher police--and apparent vigilante--response.

Businesses across malls in Yuen Long mostly shut early on Monday. Some protesters worried that an escalation of violence in Yuen Long could involve local gangs. Images of a pro-Beijing lawmaker shaking hands with some white-shirted vigilantes have circulated widely on social media and television broadcasts since Sunday.

A trade union for flight attendants working at Hong Kong's main carrier, Cathay Pacific Airways, took note of the violence in Yuen Long in a statement posted on its Facebook page, and condemned the government for failing to ensure safety for citizens.

"It is clear that the situation will remain unstable for the next few days," the statement said.

Officials blamed Sunday's violence on "radical groups," singling out protesters' defacing of China's national emblem on one of the mainland government's offices on the island. Mrs. Lam said this challenged the city's self-governing privileges given by Beijing, which had warned weeks earlier that an escalation of violence could force the central government to intervene--actions that would almost certainly deal a further setback to business confidence.

This isn't the first time that major stores have shut early in the protests that have rocked Hong Kong these past two months. Dozens of retailers in and around downtown, including the massive IFC Mall that greets most tourists upon arriving on Hong Kong island, sent staff home early or completely shut in mid-June during an incident in which protesters blocked roads and clashed with police.

Eli Binder and Natasha Khan contributed to this article.

Write to Chuin-Wei Yap at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 22, 2019 08:36 ET (12:36 GMT)

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