Hong Kong Protesters Descend on Airport, With Plans to Stay for Days

By Katherine Li and Mike Ives

  • Aug. 9, 2019 (NYTimes.com)

HONG KONG — Thousands of black-clad antigovernment protesters demonstrated at Hong Kong’s international airport on Friday, taking aim at both a global transit hub and the city’s closely guarded reputation for order and efficiency.

The protest in the airport’s arrivals hall, which is planned to last through Sunday, came as Hong Kong reeled from its worst political crisis since Britain handed the former colony back to China in 1997, and less than a week after protests and a general strike caused chaos in the city and led to 148 arrests.

The airport protest began in the early afternoon, as demonstrators in black T-shirts and face masks nearly filled the cavernous arrivals hall, chanting “Hong Kongers, keep going,” a rallying cry for the two-month-old protest movement.

“You’ve arrived in a broken, torn-apart city, not the one you have once pictured,” read a pamphlet that protesters offered to arriving travelers. “Yet for this Hong Kong, we fight. We shall never surrender.”

As of Friday night, the demonstration remained peaceful, and there had been no reports of arrests or disruptions of flights. Protesters were careful to leave a path clear for travelers, some of whom recorded the demonstration on their phones or helped themselves to pamphlets.

Demonstrators handed out pamphlets about the protests.
Demonstrators handed out pamphlets about the protests.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The protests in Hong Kong began two months ago, in opposition to a bill — now suspended — that would allow extraditions to mainland China, where the courts are controlled by the ruling Communist Party. It has since expanded to include a number of other demands for greater democracy.

In recent days, mainland Chinese officials have issued stern warnings to protesters about the risks of continuing their campaign. On Friday night, the Chinese government struck at Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, Cathay Pacific, some of whose employees were reported to have supported the protests.

China’s civil aviation authority demanded that the airline bar staffers who have supported illegal assemblies or acts of violence from working on flights to mainland China. A Cathay pilot was reported to have been among dozens of people charged with rioting in connection with a recent protest, and more than 1,500 of its employees called in sick as part of the general strike on Monday, according to a union representative.

[What’s going on in Hong Kong? Here’s how the protests have evolved.]

Many of the street protests in recent weeks have ended with the Hong Kong police firing tear gas and rubber bullets in clashes with demonstrators. A hard-core contingent of young protesters has increasingly embraced violent tactics, arguing that the government has ignored more peaceful displays.

Protesters said they did not expect the police to use tear gas against them at the airport. As of early evening, the police presence in the arrivals hall was light.

Protesters at the airport handed out leaflets promoting their causes.
Protesters at the airport handed out leaflets promoting their causes.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

Sam Yang, 45, a Taiwanese businessman, waded through the crowd after arriving on a flight from the mainland Chinese city of Chengdu. He said that his first order of business would be changing out of the black T-shirt that he happened to be wearing.

“Obviously I’ve never run into any protests here before,” Mr. Yang said. “I don’t know how this conflict will end, either. Good luck to Hong Kong.”

Before the demonstration, several protesters, including employees of Cathay Pacific, stressed that it was meant to be an entirely nonviolent way of maintaining the movement’s momentum.

Miki Ip, a real-estate agent who attended the demonstration, said she came partly to refute unproven claims by the Chinese government that the civil disobedience had been led by foreign forces who wanted to undermine Beijing’s authority.

“China has told us so many lies, and we lack a government that really works in our interests,” Ms. Ip, 38, said in the arrivals hall. “The living conditions facing youngsters nowadays are harsh, and they feel a lack of ownership over their hometown, both economically and politically.”

Demonstrators burned paper money during the Hungry Ghost Festival outside the Wong Tai Sin police station on Friday to protest police violence.
Demonstrators burned paper money during the Hungry Ghost Festival outside the Wong Tai Sin police station on Friday to protest police violence.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

This week, news media controlled by the Chinese Communist Party accused a diplomat at the American consulate in Hong Kong, Julie Eadeh, of being behind the protests. A State Department spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, suggested that China had leaked personal information about Ms. Eadeh, calling that the act of a “thuggish regime.”

On Friday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s office in Hong Kong responded by accusing the United States of “venomous and unfounded allegations” and “gangster logic.”

The stakes are high for the airport protesters, in part because they have not applied for permission to hold the demonstration. That technically makes it an illegal assembly.

The Hong Kong airport handled nearly 75 million passengers last year, making it the world’s eighth busiest for passengers, according to Airports Council International. It was also the world’s busiest aviation terminal for cargo.

Several other antigovernment demonstrations are planned for this weekend around Hong Kong. They include a family-friendly rally in the central business district that the police approved in advance, and three planned marches elsewhere for which permit applications were rejected.

Unlike many of the recent protests, the one at the airport has not been authorized by the authorities.
Unlike many of the recent protests, the one at the airport has not been authorized by the authorities.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

On Wednesday, the United States joined several other countries — including Australia, Britain, Ireland, Japan and Singapore — in issuing a warning to its citizens about traveling to Hong Kong. It advised them to “exercise increased caution” because of recent “confrontational” protests.

The local government scrambled on Thursday to reassure visitors that Hong Kong was still safe, saying in a statement that while some may have been inconvenienced by the recent protests, the city remained “a welcoming city for tourists and travelers from around the world.”

The Hong Kong police have in recent weeks dispersed protesters by spraying tear gas in numerous parts of the city, including residential areas and two major shopping districts. But the government’s statement said that “illegal confrontations” had not been widespread and had been “confined to a limited area near the procession routes,” though it acknowledged that some visitors may have been inconvenienced.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, appeared at a news briefing on Friday evening, flanked by her finance secretary and leaders of the local business community. They appeared to be responding to an earlier call from the Chinese government to stand behind her and oppose violence in the semiautonomous territory.

In her remarks, Mrs. Lam called for all sectors of Hong Kong society to overcome their differences, emphasizing the economic harm she said the protests had inflicted on the economy. But she declined to offer new concessions to the protest movement.

“I don’t think we should just make concessions in order to silence the violent protesters,” she said.

Alison Lee, 29, one of the protesters at the airport, said Mrs. Lam’s remarks had left her cold.

“I think that Carrie Lam is just repeating what she said before,” Ms. Lee said. “She has provided no solutions and no plans to solve the current problems. This is not going to just go away because she wants it to.”

Ezra Cheung contributed reporting.

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