Hundreds of flights were cancelled or suspended at Hong Kong’s airport yesterday as pro-democracy protesters staged a second disruptive sit-in at the sprawling complex, defying warnings from the city’s leader who said they were heading down a “path of no return”.
The new protest came as Beijing sent further ominous signals that the 10 weeks of unrest must end, with state-run media showing videos of security forces gathering across the border. The crisis, which has seen millions of people take to Hong Kong’s streets, was already the biggest challenge to Chinese rule of the semi-autonomous city since its 1997 handover from Britain.
But the two days of protests at the airport, one of the busiest in the world, raised the stakes yet again. All check-ins were cancelled yesterday afternoon after thousands of protesters wearing their signature black T-shirts made barricades using luggage trolleys to prevent passengers from passing through security gates.
Scuffles broke out between protesters and travellers who pleaded to be allowed past. On Monday a crowd that police said numbered 5,000 filled the building to denounce what they said were violent tactics by police in trying to quell weekend rallies. Airport authorities in response cancelled all flights on Monday afternoon.
Meanwhile, the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, yesterday morning gave an at-times emotional press conference in which she warned of dangerous consequences if escalating violence was not curbed. “Violence… will push Hong Kong down a path of no return,” she said.
Lam, who faced fierce questioning from local reporters and at one point appeared to be on the verge of tears, appealed for calm. “Take a minute to think, look at our city, our home, do you all really want to see it pushed into an abyss,” Lam said, although she again refused to make any concessions to the protesters.
No sooner were her prepared remarks finished than the full-frontal assault in both Cantonese and English began. “You blame your own political misjudgement on others, and refuse to acknowledge your mistakes,” one journalist said.
“When will you accept political responsibility to end citizens’ fear?…
When will you be willing to step down? When will you tell the police to stop?,” the reporter from Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK asked.
Before Lam could respond, the reporter added an admonition: “You asked me in the past to take my job seriously, so please answer me seriously as well.” The embattled Beijing-backed leader began to reply but more questions were shouted.
“Citizens are afraid of you and the police, can you answer the question?” The combative press conference was an indication of the rising tensions in the city after a weekend of violence that left dozens of people with injuries, some of them serious. Lam at times appeared caught off-guard by the intensity of the questioning, with reporters repeatedly interrupting her and accusing her of failing to respond. “Please don’t interrupt,” an official pleaded as reporters shouted over Lam.
“This question has been answered,” she repeated as she was pressed on whether Beijing would allow her to fully withdraw a now-suspended bill allowing extradition to the mainland, a key protester demand. And the barrage continued as she abruptly left the podium: “Do you have a conscience?” shouted one journalist. “Mrs Lam, many citizens have been asking recently when you will die,” yelled another.