HONG KONG — Hong Kong’s international airport suspended all check-ins for the second day in a row Tuesday as thousands of protesters blocked passengers and occupied terminals in a mass demonstration.
More than 300 flights had already been canceled Tuesday following Monday’s airport shutdown due to a similar protest.
Hong Kong is in its 10th week of public unrest. What started as a peaceful movement against an extradition bill perceived to threaten Hong Kong’s rule of law has become a decentralized series of near-daily confrontations between protesters and police. More than 700 protesters have been arrested so far.
The international airport, one of Asia’s top transportation hubs and a symbol of Hong Kong’s status as a financial center, has been a focal site for protesters, who’ve been trying to raise awareness of their fight for democratic reforms and against alleged police brutality.
But this time, protesters shifted from the peaceful tactics they’d been using for five days in a row, escalating from chanting and handing out fliers to physically obstructing passengers from accessing their flights. Their methods may have antagonized the international visitors they were trying to win over, just as Beijing escalates a propaganda war aimed at portraying the protesters as “radicals” under foreign influence and deserving of crackdown.
Angry scuffles broke out in the late afternoon as hundreds of protesters surrounded two security gates in one of the terminals, sitting down so that no travelers could access the security check and their boarding gates.
Shouting matches broke out as protesters refused to let passengers by, standing in their way, blocking escalators with airport trolleys and disabling an elevator. At one point, some protesters trapped passengers — including families with small children — in a poorly ventilated emergency passageway.
Passengers eventually burst through the passageway to make a run for a train to the boarding gates, some of them crying in distress.
Jasmine, 25, a traveler from Britain who didn’t give her last name, said she had been “sympathetic” with the protesters but disagreed with their airport occupation.
“I’m getting quite scared, to be honest,” she said. “You cannot just block the whole airport. This is the fifth day they’re doing this, all the poor tourists have to stay here, and the airlines are not helping at all.”
“It’s not that I’m against them expressing their political thoughts. But find other means.”
The protests Monday and Tuesday came after the most violent clashes between police and protesters so far over the weekend. Police ruptured one woman’s eye with a bean bag bullet, dressed up as protesters to conduct arrests, and fired large amounts of tear gas at close range, including inside a subway station.
Beijing has ramped up rhetoric against protesters in recent weeks, saying Monday that they showed “signs of terrorism.” State-owned news channels have broadcast propaganda saying protesters are supported by foreign forces including the United States, and played videos of Chinese military and armed police gathering across the border in Shenzhen as a show of force.
Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said Tuesday that protests were damaging Hong Kong’s economy and could drag the territory into an “abyss.”
The spokesman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, meanwhile voiced concern Tuesday about the recent escalation of violence in Hong Kong.
The U.N. rights office had reviewed “credible evidence of law enforcement officials employing less-lethal weapons in ways that are prohibited by international norms and standards,” Colville told reporters in Geneva.
He said the office’s high commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, was calling for a “prompt, independent, impartial investigation” into allegations of police brutality, and urged the Hong Kong government to exercise restraint toward protesters.
Cheers broke out among protesters when the suspension of check-in procedures was announced at 6 p.m. local time.
In contrast to Monday, when thousands of protesters panicked and fled the airport, thinking police were on their way, Tuesday’s crowds mostly stayed put.
Some took a conciliatory approach to passengers, apologizing and trying to reunite travelers separated from their loved ones. Others continued to block already checked-in travelers from reaching their gates.
Edgar, 17, a protester who withheld his last name for protection, said the protesters’ moves to block passengers had been decided spontaneously as the sit-in evolved.
“We are afraid this could turn public opinion against us, but we are desperate and we are sorry,” he said. “I know some passengers were scared today, but we are scared every day we protest on the streets, of tear gas, rubber bullets and being beaten.”
“We’re more afraid of what will happen to Hong Kong if we do nothing,” he said.
Police were nowhere to be seen as night fell.
(Times staff writer Alice Su reported from Beijing, and special correspondent Ryan Ho Kilpatrick reported from Hong Kong.)
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