Hong Kong airport cancels flights as Carrie Lam warns of 'path of no return'

Sophia Yan
Carrie Lam defended the conduct of police in 'extremely difficult circumstances' - REUTERS

Pro-democracy protesters forced flight cancellations in Hong Kong for the second day in a row as the city’s chief executive Carrie Lam warned mass demonstrations were pushing the city “into an abyss.”

One of the world's busiest airports halted check-ins for departing flights at 4.30pm as protesters again flooded terminals, lining up luggage trolleys at the security checkpoint and blocking people trying to catch their flights. Arriving flights were still expected to land as the evening set in.

Activists have now occupied the airport for five consecutive days as mass demonstrations in Hong Kong enter their third month, despite pleas from city authorities for public order to be restored.

“Let’s set aside differences and spend one minute to look at our city and our home,” said Ms Lam on Tuesday morning in a direct appeal to protesters. “Could we bear to push it into an abyss where everything will perish?”

“Violence, no matter if it’s using violence or condoning violence, will push Hong Kong down a path of no return,” she said, at times appearing to be on the verge of tears, saying that “sincere dialogue” could begin only once chaos ended and calm returned.

Carrie Lam defended the conduct of police in 'extremely difficult circumstances' Credit: Reuters

Ms Lam’s repeated refusals to make any concessions or show sympathy toward protesters, some of whom have been injured as police shoot tear gas and rubber bullets, has only upset them more and boosted public support for the activists plunging the city into its worst political crisis in decades.

Chris Patten, the last governor under British colonial rule, said that Hong Kong was "close to the abyss", because Ms Lam refused to withdraw a controversial extradition bill  

"I think there is a degree of frustration and anger at the government refusing to give any sensible ground at all, which probably provokes more violence," Mr Patten told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

He urged Boris Johnson to take a firmer line with Beijing, and to put pressure on visiting National Security Advisor John Bolton for US help.

Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, said the UK should extend citizenship rights to Hong Kong citizens.

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights urged Hong Kong on Tuesday to exercise restraint and investigate evidence of its forces firing tear gas at protesters in ways banned under international law.

The White House has also urged "all sides" to avoid violence in Hong Kong. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, on Monday praised protesters for standing up to the Chinese Communist Party, warning that the "world is watching" for any violent crackdown by authorities.

By Tuesday evening, most airport shops and restaurants had closed, leaving hungry visitors stuck in the airport to line up at a hot water dispenser to heat instant noodles purchased from a convenience store that remained open. 

Alice Leung, 20, said she supported the protesters despite being forced to cancel her trip to Taipei. “Hong Kong people are angry, so they want to go to the airport to make some noise and let people from other countries know what’s happening.”  

“We had debated about cancelling our trip,” said Nicole Macarchuk, visiting from San Francisco, who had seen an official travel advisory from the US government about the protests. In an attempt to get from Hong Kong to their next stop in Vietnam, the family of 4 held 12 boarding passes with three airlines, all of which were severely delayed. “But everything was prepaid, and we were looking forward to coming...bad educated guess, unfortunately.”   

Protesters hold papers of conscience, left, and justice Credit:  PHILIP FONG/AFP

On Monday, thousands crowded into the airport to express anger at the police for using escalating force to disperse crowds. Over the weekend, tensions ramped up significantly as officers shot tear gas into subway stations for the first time after mass demonstrations began early June. More than 600 arrests have been made in connection with the protests.

Some wore eye patches, waving signs that said “Hong Kong is not safe” and “Shame on the police,” to grow public awareness after a woman thought to have been shot by a beanbag round in her right eye was hospitalised. 

Other protesters chanted, “Democracy is a good thing!” in a nod toward concerns that freedoms long enjoyed in the former British colony were eroding under Beijing's rule.

Protesters first took to the streets against an extradition proposal that would have sent suspects to face trial in mainland China, where the Communist Party controls the courts. The extradition bill was suspended by city leaders - but not formally withdrawn, leading demonstrators to worry that left room for lawmakers to quickly table and pass the legislation in the future. 

Demands have since expanded to include broader political reforms, such as direct leadership elections.

Airlines are dealing with a backlog of stranded passengers as all departing and arriving flights were cancelled Monday by the afternoon, and hundreds of additional flights were cancelled Tuesday morning.

A pro-democracy protester holds a placard Credit:  PHILIP FONG/AFP

The airport occupations comes amid ominous signs from Beijing that the government is considering military intervention – a move that raises fears of a bloody Tiananmen Square-style bloody crackdown in 1989.   

Chinese state media outlets have released videos showing armoured personnel and trucks purportedly driving through Shenzhen, a Chinese city that borders Hong Kong. Beijing officials continue to escalate their rhetoric, denouncing the demonstrations as “serious criminal acts with sprouts of terrorism emerging.” 

“Terrorism is a term to remind Hong Kong people that the People’s Liberation Army is an option,” said Ivan Choy, a political scholar and professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.