More Protests at Hong Kong Airport as City’s Leader Pleads for Calm
- by NewYorkTimes
- Aug. 13, 2019
HONG KONG — Anti-government demonstrators staged another protest at Hong Kong’s airport on Tuesday, as the city’s embattled leader pleaded for order after days of escalating chaos, mass flight cancellations and violent street clashes.
The latest demonstration came a day after protesters stormed the cavernous arrivals and departures halls at Hong Kong International Airport, effectively shuttering the transportation hub, one of the world’s busiest. They had also staged a three-day sit-in in the arrivals hall over the weekend that did not noticeably disrupt services.
The Hong Kong Airport Authority said in a statement early Tuesday that flights were “expected to be affected” by rescheduling. By midmorning, the airport’s website showed that more than 300 flights that day had already been canceled, and by midafternoon hundreds of demonstrators bearing signs saying “HK is dangerous” and “Hong Kong is no longer safe” had occupied parts of the departures and arrivals halls.
The escalating unrest this month has put the Asian financial hub on edge, in part because Beijing has started to warn protesters in increasingly strident terms to stand down or face consequences. The prospect that China would send its military into Hong Kong to restore order still looks remote, but the fact that analysts and the city’s residents are even discussing it underlines the depths of the political crisis.
In a news conference with combative reporters on Tuesday morning, Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, said that without the rule of law it would be impossible for the city’s residents to “continue to live in a peaceful manner.”
“The stability and well-being of seven million people are in jeopardy,” Mrs. Lam said, her voice breaking slightly. “Take a minute to think about that. Look at our city, our home. Do we really want to push our home to the abyss where it will be smashed into pieces?”
During street clashes this summer, the Hong Kong police have regularly fired tear gas, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds to disperse protesters on the streets, even in residential areas and crowded shopping districts.
On Sunday night, the police escalated their tactics against protesters by firing tear gas inside a subway station and chasing protesters down an escalator at another station. The authorities, for their part, accused protesters of attacking officers with bricks and gasoline bombs.
On Tuesday, Mrs. Lam was frequently interrupted by journalists who demanded an explanation for what protesters have called blatant police misconduct. She looked more visibly emotional than she has at other recent public appearances.
“Will you apologize to the girl?” one reporter asked, referring to a woman who was hit in her right eye on Sunday, apparently by a projectile fired by police officers, during the city’s 10th straight weekend of mass demonstrations.
“Why have you never condemned the police?” another asked.
“Sir, please do not interrupt,” one of Mrs. Lam’s officials said at one point, as reporters shouted questions while she was trying to speak.
Toward the end of the briefing, Mrs. Lam said that police operations are not determined by “someone like myself, who is outside the police,” and that officers on the ground had to make spot judgments.
“It’s not my choice to focus on the police, but all the questions have focused on the police,” she said.
Separately, medical professionals were holding rallies at several local hospitals on Tuesday over what they said was a worrisome escalation in the intensity of police violence on the city’s streets, and in solidarity with the woman who was hit in the eye on Sunday. The Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily reported that the injured woman is a veterinary nurse.
At one rally, a protester who wore a mask to conceal his identity told a television reporter that it was “a matter of time before someone gets killed.”
This summer’s protests in Hong Kong began in early June in opposition to legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party.
They have since morphed into a call for free elections, which largely do not exist in China, and spiraled into Hong Kong’s worst political crisis since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing, which views the unrest as a direct challenge to its authority over the semiautonomous Chinese territory, has warned the protesters to stand down and has leaned on Hong Kong’s political and business elite to close ranks behind Mrs. Lam, a career civil servant.
Much of the pressure has focused in recent days on Cathay Pacific Airways, one of the territory’s best-known international brands. The Chinese government has forced it to bar staffers who support or participate in the protests from doing any work involving flights to mainland China.
On Tuesday afternoon, Rupert Hogg, the airline’s chief executive, warned employees against participating in Tuesday’s airport protest because it was not sanctioned by the government.
“It is important that you do not support or participate in this protest,” Mr. Hogg said in a statement. “Again, we would be concerned about your safety if this protest becomes disorderly or violent.”
Other issues have often loomed larger than the extradition bill during recent protests, including the stalled promise of more direct elections, the use of force by the police against demonstrators and a call for Mrs. Lam to resign. But the stalled extradition bill still enrages protesters, and continues to fuel their civil disobedience.
Mrs. Lam has said the legislation is “dead,” but her administration has declined to fully withdraw it.
Asked by a Reuters reporter on Tuesday if she had the autonomy to withdraw the legislation, Mrs. Lam said: “This has been answered before on numerous occasions.”
“But you’ve avoided the question on numerous occasions,” the reporter said. There has been widespread speculation over to what extent China’s central government is influencing the Hong Kong government’s position on the issue.
Mrs. Lam has refused to meet with protesters or to offer any concessions beyond saying that she would shelve the extradition bill.