Hong Kong‘s international airport ground to a halt Monday as thousands of protesters swarmed its main terminal to express their outrage over another night of violent clashes between pro-democracy activists and riot police.
All flights departing flights from the airport — one of the busiest in Asia — have been canceled after 5:50 p.m. local (4:50 a.m. CT).
The cancellations will have major repercussions. Hong Kong’s airport is a major regional hub, handling 1,100 passenger and cargo flights daily, with services between the city and about 200 international destinations.
There are now fears that police will attempt to clear the thousands of people who have gathered inside the airport. At a press conference this afternoon, a Hong Kong police spokesman would not rule out using tear gas to at the airport.
The focus on the airport comes as the city’s protest movement enters its 11th week. Since Friday, August 9 groups of peaceful protesters have occupied the airport’s main arrivals terminal, unfurling banners and handing out anti-government leaflets in multiple languages to international visitors.
Unlike in previous demonstrations, protesters Monday were filling both the arrivals hall and departures, as airport officials struggled to keep operations running smoothly even as the crowds remained largely cooperative.
Calls for a mass protest at the airport came after police and demonstrators fought pitched battles on the streets across several districts of the city on Sunday. Officers in riot gear pursued protesters into subway stations, where they were recorded firing tear gas in enclosed environments and at close range. One police officer also suffered partial burns to his leg after being hit by a petrol bomb.
One female protester was seen being treated by paramedics, after she was hit in the face by a beanbag round. Unconfirmed reports that she had potentially lost an eye were circulating Monday, with calls for an “evil police eye for an eye” protests to be held in response, with the airport as the primary target.
According to hospital authorities, at least nine people were injured in the violence Sunday, two seriously. In a statement, police commissioner Stephen Lo “expressed anger and severe condemnation against the reckless, violent and unlawful acts committed by the radical protestors.” Lo said the force “will strive to investigate all violent acts that have caused serious and even life-threatening injuries.”
Speaking to CNN at the airport Monday, Patsy Ko said the images from Sunday evening were the catalyst for her joining the protests there — her first time taking part in the anti-government demonstrations.
“It is really sad for the people who were injured, I could not sleep last night,” she said.
Public relations battle
As the unrest show no signs of stopping, and as a response to their demands from the Hong Kong government stays wanting, protesters have increasingly turned to the international community for potential relief.
The United States flag has become a frequent sight at protests, as some called for Washington to, among other actions, pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a law that would reaffirm US commitment to upholding Hong Kong’s limited democracy and rule of law.
The UK too has faced increasing pressure to take greater action over the protests. Last week, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab spoke with Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, during which he “condemned violent acts by all sides but emphasized the right to peaceful protest, noting that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people had chosen this route to express their views. He underlined that the violence should not cloud the lawful actions of the majority.”
In a statement Monday, Youngspiration, an opposition political party which has been heavily involved in the protests, called for sanctions against Lam and other top officials, echoing demands by others that the international community act on behalf of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.
“Youngspiration hereby urge governments of the world and all freedom-loving people on Earth, to stand against China, the Enemy of Humanity, and its executioners, the Hong Kong Police Force and the incompetent Carrie Lam government,” it said.
At the airport over the weekend, leaflets in Chinese, English, French, Korean, Japanese and other languages were handed out to arriving international visitors, explaining the causes of the unrest — as protesters see it — and the demands of the opposition movement.
Showcasing the slick design that has characterized the protests, other pamphlets and posters also advertised planned demonstrations as “new tourist spots,” handed out airline tickets “to freedom” and advised tourists what to do if they were caught in the protests during their visit.
While China is Hong Kong’s most important trading partner, the city is an international business and financial hub, and the economy is already showing signs of hurting as a result of the protests.
Businesses, both international and local, in Hong Kong have also faced pressure and accusations of acting in concert or sympathizing with the protesters. Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship carrier and a major local employer, has been ordered by Chinese aviation authorities to ban staff who took part in protests from traveling to China.
By appealing to the international community, and making sure it is their message that most foreigners are seeing, protesters have shown themselves adept at public relations. Meanwhile despite carrying out regular press briefings, the Hong Kong government has at times appeared at a loss as to how to engage with residents and protesters.
It comes as the Chinese government continues to ramp up its propaganda output in an effort to control the narrative about the protests, at least domestically.
After mention of the protests was initially censored — as with most unrest in China — photos and videos of violence have become a more common sight in mainland Chinese media, which has emphasized the radical elements of the anti-government movement and sought to paint it as controlled by the US and other foreign “black hands.”
Chinese officials have also appealed to Hong Kongers directly to condemn the violent protests, in an apparent attempt to split the movement. However advances have been undermined by continued forceful policing, with some local groups shouting police out of their neighborhoods over the weekend.
Opposition lawmaker Claudia Mo told CNN she expected a major reaction from protesters after Sunday’s violence.
“It’s like hitting a ball, the harder you hit it, the harder it will bounce back — that’s the logic of nature,” she said.