Airport the focus for Hong Kong tensions with city ‘on path of no return’
Protesters forced more flight cancellations as the authorities warned that the situation could not continue.
Protesters severely crippled operations at Hong Kong’s international airport for a second day, forcing authorities to cancel all remaining flights out of the city after demonstrators took over the terminals as part of their push for democratic reforms.
After a brief respite early Tuesday during which flights were able to take off and land, the airport authority announced check-in services for departing flights were suspended as of 4.30pm.
Departing flights that had completed the process would continue to operate.
It said it did not expect arriving flights to be affected, though dozens were already cancelled.
On Monday, more than 200 flights were cancelled and the airport was effectively shut down with no flights taking off or landing.
Passengers have been forced to seek accommodation in the city while airlines struggle to find other ways to get them to their destinations.
The airport disruptions are an escalation of a summer of demonstrations aimed at what many Hong Kong residents see as an increasing erosion of the freedoms they were promised in 1997 when Communist Party-ruled mainland China took over what had been a British colony.
Those doubts are fuelling the protests, which build on a previous opposition movement that shut down much of the city for seven weeks in 2014. That movement eventually fizzled out and its leaders have been jailed on public disturbance charges.
The central government in Beijing has ominously characterised the current protest movement as something approaching “terrorism” that poses an “existential threat” to the local citizenry.
While Beijing tends to define terrorism broadly, extending it especially to nonviolent movements opposing government policies in minority regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang, the government’s usage of the term in relation to Hong Kong raised the prospect of greater violence and the possible suspension of legal rights for those detained.
Meanwhile, paramilitary police were assembling across the border in the city of Shenzhen for exercises which some saw as a threat to increase force against the mostly young protesters who have turned out in their thousands over the past 10 weeks.
Scores of people have been injured, both protesters and police, including a woman reported to have had an eye ruptured by a beanbag round fired by police during clashes on Sunday.
Police said they are investigating the incident, which protesters have taken up as a rallying cry.
Some of those joining in the airport occupation wore gauze bandages dyed with artificial blood over one eye.
The United Nations’ top human rights official condemned violence surrounding the protests and called on the authorities and protesters to settle their dispute peacefully.
That includes firing tear gas canisters into crowded, enclosed areas and directly at individual protesters, “creating a considerable risk of death or serious injury”, Mr Colville said in a statement.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said the instability, chaos and violence have placed the city on a “path of no return”.
The demonstrators have shown no sign of letting up on their campaign to force Ms Lam’s administration to respond to their demands, including that she step down and entirely scrap proposed legislation under which some suspects could be sent to mainland China, where critics say they could face torture and unfair or politically charged trials.
At the airport, protesters discussed among themselves whether they should prevent all would-be travellers from entering, with some saying their presence there was meaningless unless they blocked all access to the facilities.
Demonstrators have in recent days focused on their demand for an independent inquiry into what they call the police’s abuse of power and negligence.
That followed reports and circulating video footage of violent arrests and injuries sustained by protesters.
Some protesters have thrown bricks, eggs and flaming objects at police stations.
Police say several officers have suffered burns, bruises and eye damage inflicted by protesters.
Ms Lam told reporters that dialogue would only begin when the violence stopped.
She reiterated her support for the police and said they have had to make on-the-spot decisions under difficult circumstances, using “the lowest level of force”.
“After the violence has been stopped, and the chaotic situation that we are seeing could subside,” Ms Lam said.
“I as the chief executive will be responsible to rebuild Hong Kong’s economy … to help Hong Kong to move on.”
She did not elaborate on what steps her government will take toward reconciliation.
After two months, the protests have become increasingly divisive and prompted clashes across the city.
The airport shutdown added to what authorities say is already a major blow to the financial hub’s crucial tourism industry.
“I don’t think I will ever fly to Hong Kong again,” she said.
The protests early on were staged in specific neighbourhoods near government offices.
However, the airport protest has had a direct impact on business travel and tourism.
Analysts said it could make foreign investors think twice about setting up shop in Hong Kong, which has long prided itself as being Asia’s leading business city with convenient air links across the region.
The black-clad protesters Tuesday held up signs in Chinese and English to appeal to travellers from mainland China and other parts of the world.
“Democracy is a good thing,” said one sign in simplified Chinese characters, which are used in mainland China instead of the traditional Chinese script of Hong Kong.
Adding to the protesters’ anger, Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways told employees in a memo that the carrier has a “zero tolerance” for employees joining “illegal protests” and warned violators could be fired.
Images on the internet showed armoured personnel carriers belonging to the People’s Armed Police driving in a convoy towards the site of the exercises just across the border from Hong Kong.
The People’s Liberation Army also stations a garrison in Hong Kong, which recently released a video showing its units combating actors dressed as protesters.
The Hong Kong police on Monday also put on a display of armoured car-mounted water cannons that it plans to deploy by the middle of the month.