Hong Kong riot police clash with airport protesters

Batons and pepper spray used on demonstrators as flights suspended for second day

Police armed with batons and pepper spray have clashed with thousands of protesters at Hong Kong’s international airport after they blockaded the departures area, forcing flights to be suspended for a second day.

After a day of largely peaceful protests, marked mostly by arguments between demonstrators and frustrated travellers, violence broke out between riot police and demonstrators after nightfall.

A group of uniformed police officers entered the airport, where they were met with a sea of laser pointers and chants of “Give back the eye”, in solidarity with a woman badly injured in earlier protests who may lose the sight in her right eye.

Those officers left and soon after riot police arrived, using pepper spray and batons to try to enter the airport. Protesters quickly erected barricades and there was a series of violent confrontations and several arrests.

At one point, unarmed demonstrators cornered an armed officer who had forced a woman to the ground, grabbed his baton off him and beat him with it until he drew a pistol and they fled, according to footage shared on social media.

Within 30 minutes, the police withdrew. They later said they had gone in to rescue an injured man who had been detained by protesters on suspicion of being an undercover officer, the Associated Press reported.

Crowds had prevented paramedics from reaching the man for several hours, even as he slipped in and out of consciousness, reporters at the scene said.

A second man detained by protesters on suspicion of being a spy was identified by the nationalistic Chinese tabloid Global Times as their reporter. The editor, Hu Xijin, appealed for his release before he was evacuated by medics.

After the police retreated, protesters barricaded themselves into the terminal, leaving the two sides in an uneasy standoff. It was the fifth consecutive day that thousands of people had flocked to demonstrate at the city’s airport.

It was reported that the airport authority had secured an injunction against those occupying the terminal building. The South China Morning Post said a source had confirmed that the authority, represented by senior counsel Benjamin Yu, was granted the injunction by a judge late on Tuesday night.

It was not immediately clear what the scope of the injunction to remove the protesters would be or how it would be enforced, but technically it would become effective once it was posted in a public area at the airport.

The pro-democracy protest movement, originally launched in response to a controversial extradition law, is now in its 10th week and there have been increasingly violent clashes between police and protesters.

The airport protest came as the United Nations high commissioner for human rights urged Hong Kong’s authorities to exercise restraint and investigate evidence of its forces firing teargas at protesters in ways banned under international law.

Airport check-in operations were suspended at 4.30pm as protesters gathered in the arrivals hall, as well as some departure areas, using luggage trolleys to blockade the doors to customs checkpoints.

Floors and walls were covered with notes penned by activists and other artwork. The scene was peaceful as protesters spoke to travellers, explaining their motives.

Why are people protesting?

The protests were triggered by a controversial bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where the Communist party controls the courts, but have since evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement.

Public anger – fuelled by the aggressive tactics used by the police against demonstrators – has collided with years of frustration over worsening inequality and the cost of living in one of the world's most expensive, densely populated cities.

The protest movement was given fresh impetus on 21 July when gangs of men attacked protesters and commuters at a mass transit station – while authorities seemingly did little to intervene. 

Underlying the movement is a push for full democracy in the city, whose leader is chosen by a committee dominated by a pro-Beijing establishment rather than by direct elections.

Protesters have vowed to keep their movement going until their core demands are met, such as the resignation of the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, an independent inquiry into police tactics, an amnesty for those arrested and a permanent withdrawal of the bill.

Lam announced on 4 September that she was withdrawing the bill.

Why were people so angry about the extradition bill?

Beijing’s influence over Hong Kong has grown in recent years, as activists have been jailed and pro-democracy lawmakers disqualified from running or holding office. Independent booksellers have disappeared from the city, before reappearing in mainland China facing charges.

Under the terms of the agreement by which the former British colony was returned to Chinese control in 1997, the semi-autonomous region was meant to maintain a “high degree of autonomy” through an independent judiciary, a free press and an open market economy, a framework known as “one country, two systems”.

The extradition bill was seen as an attempt to undermine this and to give Beijing the ability to try pro-democracy activists under the judicial system of the mainland.

How have the authorities responded?

Beijing has issued increasingly shrill condemnations but has left it to the city's semi-autonomous government to deal with the situation. Meanwhile police have violently clashed directly with protesters, repeatedly firing teargas and rubber bullets.

Beijing has ramped up its accusations that foreign countries are “fanning the fire” of unrest in the city. China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi has ordered the US to “immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs in any form”.

Lily Kuo and Guardian reporter in Hong Kong

Rights groups and democracy activists have accused police of using increasingly excessive force. At least 40 people were treated in hospital after clashes on Sunday, including a woman who was reportedly hit with a beanbag round fired from a police shotgun and could lose an eye.

Medical staff at more than a dozen public hospitals staged a sit-in on Tuesday against police tactics and the government’s refusal to accede to protesters’ demands. The Civil Human Rights Front, a group which has organised several of the mass marches over the past two months, called for a new rally on Sunday.

The unprecedented cancellation of all flights on Monday coincided with the latest in an increasingly threatening series of statements by Beijing. A Chinese official said “terrorism” was emerging in the city, while in Hong Kong authorities demonstrated water cannon for use in crowd control.

Late on Monday, two Chinese state media outlets ran videos showing armoured personnel carriers purportedly driving to Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.

On Tuesday, the territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said violence was pushing Hong Kong “down a path of no return”. .

Lam, who at one point appeared to be near tears, appealed for calm but again refused any concessions to protesters. “Take a minute to think, look at our city, our home, do you all really want to see it pushed into an abyss?” she asked.

Clad in black and wearing face masks, their unofficial uniform, protesters at the airport on Tuesday chanted: “Stand with Hong Kong, fight for freedom,” as passengers scrambling to catch rescheduled and delayed flights from Monday.

One protester, Vanessa Lee, said: “Of course we apologised to people who are affected by our actions but we hope they understand what we are fighting for. We spared some [space] for them to do their check-in process and we are trying to leave them.”

The protests began as opposition to a now-suspended bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China, but have swelled into wider calls for democracy.

They have plunged the Chinese territory into its most serious crisis since the handover from British colonial rule, and presented President Xi Jinping with one of his biggest challenges since he came to power in 2012.

Hong Kong’s democratic struggles since 1997

1 July 1997: Hong Kong, previously a British colony, is returned to China under the framework of “one country, two systems”. The “Basic Law” constitution guarantees to protect, for the next 50 years, the democratic institutions that make Hong Kong distinct from Communist-ruled mainland China. 

2003: Hong Kong’s leaders introduce legislation that would forbid acts of treason and subversion against the Chinese government. The bill resembles laws used to charge dissidents on the mainland. An estimated half a million people turn out to protest against the bill. As a result of the backlash, further action on the proposal is halted. 

2007: The Basic Law stated that the ultimate aim was for Hong Kong’s voters to achieve a complete democracy, but China decides in 2007 that universal suffrage in elections for the chief executive cannot be implemented until 2017. Some lawmakers are chosen by business and trade groups, while others are elected by vote. In a bid to accelerate a decision on universal suffrage, five lawmakers resign. But this act is followed by the adoption of the Beijing-backed electoral changes, which expand the chief executive’s selection committee and add more seats for lawmakers elected by direct vote. The legislation divides Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp, as some support the reforms while others say they will only delay full democracy while reinforcing a structure that favors Beijing. 

2014: The Chinese government introduces a bill allowing Hong Kong residents to vote for their leader in 2017, but with one major caveat: the candidates must be approved by Beijing. Pro-democracy lawmakers are incensed by the bill, which they call an example of “fake universal suffrage” and “fake democracy”. The move triggers a massive protest as crowds occupy some of Hong Kong’s most crowded districts for 70 days. In June 2015, Hong Kong legislators formally reject the bill, and electoral reform stalls. The current chief executive, Carrie Lam, widely seen as the Chinese Communist party’s favoured candidate, is hand-picked in 2017 by a 1,200-person committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites. 

2019: Lam pushes amendments to extradition laws that would allow people to be sent to mainland China to face charges. The proposed legislation triggers a huge protest, with organisers putting the turnout at 1 million, and a standoff that forces the legislature to postpone debate on the bills. After weeks of protest, often meeting with violent reprisals from the Hong Kong police, Lam announced that she would withdraw the bill

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a promise it would retain a high degree of autonomy, an independent judiciary and freedoms not allowed on the mainland.

Demonstrators say they are fighting against the erosion of that “one country, two systems” arrangement.

Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last British governor, warned on Tuesday that Chinese intervention would be disastrous.

“That would be a catastrophe for China and of course for Hong Kong,” Patten told the BBC. “Since President Xi has been in office, there’s been a crackdown on dissent and dissidents everywhere. The party has been in control of everything.”

Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this article


Erin Hale in Hong Kong, Lily Kuo in Beijing, and Emma Graham-Harrison

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Hong Kong protesters unimpressed by Lam’s ‘sincere’ apology
Chief suggests extradition law effectively shelved but protesters say key demands ignored

Emma Graham-Harrison and Guardian reporter in Hong Kong

18, Jun, 2019 @1:08 PM

Article image
Hong Kong police chief admits officers sought to arrest wounded protesters in hospital
Stephen Lo Wai-Chung says officers followed procedure and suggest only a few would face riot charges

Emma Graham-Harrison in Hong Kong

17, Jun, 2019 @5:44 PM

Article image
'Where were the police?' Hong Kong outcry after masked thugs launch attack
Police accused of doing nothing to stop suspected triads storming train station and beating people

Lily Kuo and Guardian reporter in Hong Kong

22, Jul, 2019 @10:20 AM

Article image
Hong Kong protesters and Chinese officials hold rival press conferences
Beijing authorities issue strongest warning yet to demonstrators in rare media briefing

Christy Choi in Hong Kong

06, Aug, 2019 @10:48 AM

Article image
Clashes in Hong Kong after vast protest against extradition law
Critics say law will allow China to pursue political opponents and legitimise abductions

Helen Davidson in Hong Kong

09, Jun, 2019 @5:22 PM

Article image
Hong Kong: riot police pursue pro-democracy protesters from airport
Activists take over shopping complex and vandalise rail station after trying to choke city’s international hub

Lily Kuo in Hong Kong

01, Sep, 2019 @11:32 AM

Article image
Hong Kong protests: government vows to push ahead with extradition bill
Leader Carrie Lam refuses to withdraw law, which critics fear could be abused by Beijing

Helen Davidson in Hong Kong and Lily Kuo in Beijing

10, Jun, 2019 @8:54 AM

Article image
Carrie Lam blames Hong Kong education system for fuelling protests
Pro-Beijing leader pledges to overhaul school system, after weekend of heavy-handed police action

Helen Davidson and agencies

11, May, 2020 @8:27 AM

Article image
Hong Kong democracy activists charged hours after election of new city leader
Nine activists to be prosecuted for street protests two years ago despite Carrie Lam pledging her election would heal divisions in society

Benjamin Haas in Hong Kong

27, Mar, 2017 @1:08 PM

Article image
Hong Kong protesters use new flashmob strategy to avoid arrest
‘Blossom everywhere’ tactic is a reaction to politicisation of MTR subway system

Erin Hale in Hong Kong

13, Oct, 2019 @2:49 PM