Order returns to Hong Kong airport, but tensions linger

Hong Kong’s airport resumed operations Wednesday morning, just hours after thousands of anti-government protesters forcibly blockaded the main terminal, temporarily paralyzing the transport hub for the second consecutive night.

In often ugly and chaotic scenes, a smaller group of several hundred mostly young protesters dressed in black clashed with passengers and police, at one point attacking a man they accused of being a mainland Chinese police officer. Five people were arrested and six were hospitalized, authorities said.

Chinese government authorities strongly condemned the protesters Wednesday, describing their actions as having “broken the bottom line of the law, morality and humanity.”

“They committed serious violent crimes under public gaze, which is horrific and chilling. Their behaviors show extreme contempt for the rule of law,” said Xu Luying, a spokeswoman for China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affiars Office.

The comments are the latest escalation in what has become an increasingly volatile political crisis in the city. The protest movement started in early June in opposition to an extradition bill, which critics fear could be used to target dissidents in Hong Kong for prosecution in mainland China. The bill has since been shelved, but the uproar stoked a wider civil unrest that shows no sign of abating.

Earlier this week, Chinese state media also circulated video purporting to show an increased military presence in the city of Shenzhen on Hong Kong’s border. However, there has been no indication that troops would be deployed.

The latest clashes began late Tuesday, as protesters overran airport security, using luggage carts to set up barricades in front of security checkpoints and physically blocking passengers from accessing their flights. With tensions high, protesters surrounded a man they claimed was a mainland Chinese police officer who had attempted to infiltrate the protests.

The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office identified the man as a Mr. Xu, a Shenzhen resident who had traveled to Hong Kong airport to see off a friend.

Paramedics treated the man after he appeared to faint, but protesters would not let them evacuate. A tense, hours-long standoff ensued before police arrived and helped first responders get the man to the ambulance.

Riot police arrived shortly after, only to retreat. But a brief clash ensued with uniformed police, during which one protester was filmed attacking an officer from behind and grabbing his baton. The officer grabbed a gun from his holster in response, but did not fire it.

Demonstrators also detained and tied a Chinese national to a luggage cart after accusing him of being a gangster. The man was later identified as a reporter from Global Times, a Chinese state media tabloid, by the paper’s editor-in-chief. Both he and Mr. Xu are still in the hospital, Beijing said.

Yet despite the intense scenes, the majority of airport protesters did not engage in violence. Thousands stood at the lower-level arrivals gate, greeting those who had just landed with protest slogans and paraphernalia.

As operations began Wednesday morning, scars from Tuesday night’s unrest were still visible. Airport staff were working to remove stains from the floors and covering up graffiti as passengers filed in.

The airport announced that officials would start checking boarding passes and passports at the entrance of the departures hall from 2 p.m. (2 a.m. ET) on Wednesday.

Timothy Wu, corporate communications assistant manager at Hong Kong International Airport, told CNN that only the departures entrances would be monitored for now. Two of the entrances have been closed, and only two remained open.

Airport authorities announced Wednesday that they obtained an interim injunction allowing them to restrain people who are “unlawfully and willfully obstructing or interfering with the proper use of Hong Kong International Airport.” The injunction will likely help airport authorities prevent a repeat of Tuesday.

A city on edge

The Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office said Monday that the situation in Hong Kong had “begun to show signs of terrorism,” a major rhetorical shift. Propaganda from Beijing has also taken a more strident tone, focusing on violence and framing the protest movement as one of radical separatists being controlled by foreign “black hands.”

But the protesters are by and large are young, angry and leaderless. They complain that the government has continued to ignore their five demands, which include calls for universal suffrage and investigations into alleged police brutality and misconduct.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has repeatedly apologized for her government’s botched handling of the extradition bill that sparked the protest and vowed to do a better job of listening. But she said the political issues will only be dealt with after law and order resumes.

“The Chief Executive’s responsibility is to ensure that Hong Kong remains a safe and orderly and law-abiding city. That is my utmost responsibility,” Lam said.

“After the violence has been stopped, and the chaotic situation that now we are seeing could subside — I wouldn’t say it will be eradicated totally — I, as the Chief Executive, will be responsible to rebuild Hong Kong’s economy, to engage as widely as possible, to listen as attentively as possible to my people’s grievances and try to help Hong Kong to move on.”