Hundreds of pro-democracy activists have begun what is intended to be a three-day occupation of Hong Kong’s international airport, part of a series of demonstrations marking the tenth straight weekend of protests across the Asian financial hub.
Chanting “Hong Kong people, add oil,” and carrying signs such as “all you can eat tear gas available in 13 districts,” protesters gathered from midday Friday in the arrivals hall of the airport’s main terminal.
The move is the latest challenge to the government’s apparent strategy of waiting out the ongoing political crisis and comes just days after a citywide strike shut down flights and trains causing travel chaos. The crowd at the airport, which appeared to number in the high hundreds, included many older Hong Kongers, in contrast to the young people who have been at the forefront of recent street battles with police.
Protesters held signs in English and Chinese and had printed leaflets in multiple different languages explaining the causes and demands of the demonstrations for arriving tourists.
Hong Kong’s airport is one of the busiest in the world, handling 1,100 passenger and cargo flights daily, with services between the city and about 200 international destinations.
In a statement, the city’s Airport Authority said that additional security would be deployed on site Friday to assist passengers and airport staff. In order to minimize disruption to flights, only departing passengers with valid tickets or boarding passes and travel documents would be allowed to enter to the check-in aisles at Terminal 1, said the statement.
On Thursday, the United States became the latest country to issue a travel warning for Hong Kong, urging travelers to exercise increased caution over the protests.
“Most have been peaceful, but some have turned confrontational or resulted in violent clashes,” the advisory said. “These demonstrations, which can take place with little or no notice, are likely to continue.”
Similar warnings have been issued by other countries including Australia, United Kingdom, Ireland, Japan and Singapore. Although the warnings recommend travelers exercise a high degree of caution, countries are not yet advising visitors to avoid Hong Kong altogether.
“Hong Kong remains a welcoming city for tourists and travelers from around the world,” a Hong Kong government spokesman said in a statement. “The impact of these illegal confrontations is confined to a limited area near the procession routes, and is not widespread.”
Multiple additional protests are planned for this weekend, including in the northern New Territories town of Tai Po and in Sham Shui Po, in Kowloon, where police fired tear gas in clashes with protesters earlier this week. As of Friday afternoon, police had refused to issue letters of no objection for the planned protests on Saturday and Sunday respectively, meaning they could be deemed illegal assemblies. Protesters are appealing those decisions.
Both the Hong Kong government and protesters are engaged in an apparent war of attrition, with neither side willing to budge as protests became increasingly violent and the mood in the city turns darker.
Some people have reacted negatively as protests have spilled over from traditional demonstration targets in the city’s central business district to more residential areas. Clashes have taken place between alleged triad gang members and mostly young protesters in some areas, and police tear gas fired to clear occupied roads has seeped into nearby apartments, putting vulnerable bystanders at risk.
Smaller scale demonstrations in support of the Hong Kong government and police have also been held, with another planned for this weekend.
Speaking this week, one of China’s top officials responsible for Hong Kong appeared to seek to capitalize on the growing divides and frustrations within the city, dividing the protest movement into two groups.
“At the front are a small number of violent radicals; in the middle are some kind-hearted citizens who have been misguided and coerced to join,” said Yang Guang, spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office.
Speaking to reporters, Yang emphasized the economic and societal damage caused to Hong Kong by the protests and urged citizens to “stand firm and guard our beautiful homeland.”
“Let’s do as a loving mother does to take the inexplicably angry child home,” he said, adding that the protests had gone way beyond the freedom of assembly and expression that Hong Kong is permitted.
During the 2014 Umbrella Movement, when tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters occupied parts of the city for several months, the local government and police took a hands off approach, watching as the mood in some areas turned against the movement as it became increasingly disruptive to local businesses and general life.
That appears to be the current strategy as well, combined with hardline policing of any violent protests, and increased arrests of alleged ringleaders. Almost 600 people have been arrested so far, police said this week, for a range of offenses including “taking part in a riot,” unlawful assembly, assaulting police officers, resisting arrest and possession of offensive weapons.
Speaking to CNN this week, a senior Hong Kong government official suggested the intention was to wait the protests out, saying that numbers and enthusiasm were shrinking as the demonstrations became increasingly disruptive.
The official said there was no chance of the government responding to protesters’ demands, including a full withdrawal of a now-suspended extradition law which kicked off the current crisis and the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
On whether China’s military would be deployed to Hong Kong to deal with the protests, the official said that there was no intention by the local or Chinese government to do so at this time.
“We know the consequences,” the official said, adding that Hong Kong police were capable of dealing with the increasing violent protests. However, he added that some protesters were risking such a reaction with provocative actions targeting China’s offices in the city and the national flag.
“This is very dangerous,” the official said.
Earlier this week, Yang, the Chinese official, said protesters should not “mistake our restraint for weakness.”
“We would like to make it clear to the very small group of unscrupulous and violent criminals and the dirty forces behind them — those who play with fire will perish by it,” Yang said.