China says Hong Kong protests ‘near terrorism’

Further street clashes after ugly scenes at airport brought apologies from protesters

 Protesters hold placards as they rest on the floor of Hong Kong’s international airport on August 14th, 2019. Photograph: Philip Fong/ AFP/ Getty Images

Protesters hold placards as they rest on the floor of Hong Kong’s international airport on August 14th, 2019. Photograph: Philip Fong/ AFP/ Getty Images

 

China said on Wednesday that Hong Kong’s protest movement had reached “near terrorism”, as more street clashes followed ugly scenes a day earlier at the airport where demonstrators set upon two men they suspected of being government sympathisers.

By nightfall, police and protesters were again clashing on the streets, with riot officers shooting tear gas almost immediately as their response to demonstrators toughens.

Flights resumed at Hong Kong airport, which is one of the world’s busiest, after two days of disruptions. Thousands of protesters have occupied the airport for days, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of departures on Monday and Tuesday.

Ten weeks of increasingly violent confrontation between police and protesters have plunged the city into its worst crisis since it reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing called the behaviour at the airport no different to terrorism and said it must be severely punished.

“We’re deeply sorry about what happened yesterday,” read a banner held up by a group of a few dozen demonstrators in the airport arrivals hall in the morning.

“We were desperate and we made imperfect decisions. Please accept our apologies,” the banner said.

In chaotic scenes that would once have been unthinkable for Hong Kong, a peaceful sit-in at the airport turned violent late on Tuesday as protesters confronted and held a man they believed was an undercover Chinese agent.

Busloads of riot police arrived in response, clashing with furious demonstrators before withdrawing once the man was removed, and leaving the terminal briefly in control of activists who then detained a Chinese reporter for a short time.

It was not clear whether the scenes of violence might have eroded the broad support the movement has so far attracted in Hong Kong. The protests have also hit the city’s faltering economy.

“We promise to reflect and to improve,” protesters said in one message distributed on social media app Telegram.

“Sorry we were too reckless ... we are only afraid of losing your support to the whole movement due to our mistake, and that you give up on fighting.”

Extradition Bill

They also showed little sign of relenting in their protests, which began in opposition to a now-suspended Bill that would have allowed the extradition of suspects for trial in mainland China, but have swelled into wider calls for democracy.

Hundreds attended a demonstration in the residential area of Sham Shui Po, where police arrived and quickly used tear gas after protesters pointed lasers at the police station.

China used its strongest language yet after Tuesday’s incidents, when the protesters seized a reporter from China’s Global Times newspaper, a nationalistic tabloid run by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, and harassed the man they believed to be a mainland agent.

In addition to Beijing’s condemnation, the People’s Daily called for “using the sword of the law” to restore order, and mainland social media users lauded the detained reporter as a hero.

German foreign minister Heiko Maas said during a visit to Toronto on Wednesday that all sides involved must ensure the situation does not escalate.

On Tuesday, US president Donald Trump described the volatile situation as “tricky”, and said China’s government had moved troops near the border with Hong Kong.

“I think it will work out and I hope it works out, for liberty. I hope it works out for everybody, including China,” he told reporters during a visit to Morristown, New Jersey.

Chinese police have assembled in the neighbouring city of Shenzhen for what appeared to be exercises, the Global Times reported this week.

Clean-up

Blood, debris and signs of the scuffle were scrubbed away during the night, and cleaners and protesters themselves removed anti-government posters from the walls of the airport.

Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific Airways said a total of 272 departures and arrivals had been cancelled because of the disturbances, affecting more than 55,000 passengers.

China’s aviation regulator demanded last week that Cathay suspend personnel supporting protests in Hong Kong from staffing flights entering its airspace. On Wednesday, the carrier said it had fired two pilots. – Reuters