A large crowd of antigovernment demonstrators shut down Hong Kong’s airport and stranded thousands of passengers, as officials in Beijing responded to the weekend’s violent clashes by saying they saw signs of terrorism emerging in the protests.
Hong Kong’s airport authority canceled all departing flights Monday afternoon as well as some arrivals after thousands of demonstrators thronged the arrival and departure halls, joining a sit-in at the terminal that has run since Friday. Hundreds of inbound and outbound flights scheduled for Tuesday were canceled as well. Demonstrators gathered to protest what they said was police brutality over a bloody weekend that saw some of the worst clashes between police and protesters in more than two months of demonstrations.
By Tuesday morning, the crowd of protesters at the airport had thinned to a few dozen, though they said more would be arriving in the afternoon. Protesters said there was the possibility of further flight disruption. Passengers crowded into Hong Kong’s airport uncertain if their flights would leave on time, though some flights had begun departing earlier on Tuesday. The city’s main carrier, Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., still listed dozens of canceled flights through the rest of the day.
Micah Hays, from California, had arrived in Hong Kong Monday for what was supposed to be a one-hour layover on the way to Bali, Indonesia for a vacation with his six-year-old son. But instead he was told to evacuate the airport, for a new connecting flight Tuesday, though he wasn’t sure whether the flight would be departing on time.
The size of the crowd on Monday overwhelmed the airport, one of the world’s busiest, handling more than 400,000 flights and 75 million passengers last year. It underscored protesters’ continued ability to disrupt the city and ratchet up pressure on authorities, who have warned the unrest may tip the economy into recession and damage business confidence in the international finance and trading hub.
The protest, while disruptive, was peaceful—a contrast to battles Sunday night across the city in which police stations were besieged, dozens of protesters were arrested following charges by police wielding batons and one woman sustained a serious eye injury after she was shot with a projectile.
Many said they came to the airport to draw international attention to their cause, and would stick to the peaceful protest method long practiced in the city before this summer of discontent, during which a hard core of demonstrators has begun to embrace more radical methods.
Chinese officials focused on what they called ‘deranged acts’ by those protesters, including throwing gasoline bombs, saying they marked the emergence of terrorism in the partly autonomous Chinese city.
“Radical Hong Kong protesters have repeatedly used extremely dangerous tools to attack police officers,” Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said in a news briefing on Monday, according to Chinese state media. “The first signs of terrorism are starting to appear.”
Mr. Yang said such violence must be severely punished, “without leniency, without mercy.”
“The terrorism claim is totally out of proportion,” said Ho-Fung Hung, a political economy professor at Johns Hopkins University. Mr. Hung pointed to other times China cited terrorism as justification for draconian measures to crack down on people, such as the treatment of Uighur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region. China could be using the characterization to justify tougher methods to contain the protests in Hong Kong, he added.
At a news conference Monday, a police spokesman also played down the idea of terrorism, saying the situation wasn’t at that stage.
President Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton, who was in London for talks with the new U.K. government, said he had discussed the escalating unrest in Hong Kong with British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab “as part of a general discussion about China.”
Mr. Bolton urged China to adhere to its commitment to maintain the former British colony’s high degree of autonomy and political freedoms.
“The people of Hong Kong feel very strongly about the one country, two systems approach that was agreed to in the joint Sino-British declaration and the demonstrations have been a reflection of that,” Mr. Bolton said.
The unrest in Hong Kong shows no signs of ending as the city remains gripped in its worst political crisis in decades. The protest movement that began over a bill that would allow suspects to be tried in mainland China has snowballed into a wider movement demanding more accountability from police and for the government to respond to their issues.
Since then, a spiraling cycle of violence between thousands of radical protesters and police has spread across the city, sparking battles in many urban districts. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested, and more than 1,800 rounds of tear gas have been used, along with scores of rubber bullets and beanbag rounds, police have said.
In recent public appearances, Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has said the government can’t accede to the protesters’ demands. Those include an independent inquiry into police handling of the protests.
The city suspended airport operations out of concern for aviation safety as well as the personal safety of passengers and all staff members who work in the airport, Hong Kong’s Secretary for Transport and Housing Frank Chan Fan said Monday. He added that there was traffic congestion caused by protesters who drove their cars to the airport and blocked roads.
A large number of protesters started gathering in the early afternoon, quickly filling both arrival and departure halls, where they later marched in circles and chanted slogans. Hundreds used trolleys to block entrances to the departure hall—as it was one of their goals to paralyze the airport— agitating passengers who had to make a detour. “Blame the government,” read a cardboard sign displayed by protesters.
Ken Wong, an 18-year-old high-school student, said he would stay as late as possible at the airport, which he saw as the new front line for the protesters’ safety after the violence and arrests of the weekend. If police tried to forcefully clear them from the terminal, he said, they would drive tourists away.
Some of the protesters and travelers alike made their way on foot, as there were long lines for buses and the train, with confused passengers trying to make alternative plans.
At an empty Hong Kong Airlines counter, Jerry Huang, a businessman from Taiwan, expressed frustration at not knowing when he would get home.
“This is what they want,” he said of the protesters. “It’s fine that they block the road, but we need to fly for urgent matters. How can they win support with such actions?”
The crowds held pictures of the woman injured on Sunday, chanting “an eye for an eye” and reiterating their five demands for the government, which include an independent inquiry into police handling of the unrest.
Other impromptu protests were held across the city Monday. Among them, a group of pastors condemned the police for using violence, while workers at a public hospital staged a two-hour strike.
More than 200 doctors, nurses, paramedics and pharmacists gathered at the hospital, some with bandages over one eye, as a show of solidarity with the injured protester. They held signs that said, “Police attempt to murder Hong Kong citizens.”
“The police have gone wild. This is our way of sending them a message,” said Tommy Chan, a 31-year-old nurse who bandaged his left eye. “We’re so angry,” he added. “The police should protect us, not inflict permanent harm.” Mr. Chan said he hadn’t participated in any street protests but supports the demonstrators.
In a lengthy press conference Monday, spokesmen for the police force defended their actions and said they were justified given the circumstances officers were faced with, and in the interest of public safety.
Separately, on Monday, police showed off an armored truck equipped with a water cannon that could be used to disperse crowds. Pro-democracy legislators immediately said it would be dangerous and lethal to use water cannons in a city as densely populated as Hong Kong.
(Source : The Wall Street Journal)