All flights out of Hong Kong airport were cancelled on Monday after thousands of demonstrators occupied one of the world’s busiest travel hubs, as Beijing denounced the protests as "terrorism".
The sudden airport shutdown came as mass demonstrations spilled into a third month, despite rising threats from the authorities.
On Monday, Beijing officials gave their third press conference in as many weeks, a rarity for authorities in normal times.
“Radical protesters have been frequently using extremely dangerous tools to attack the police in recent days, constituting serious criminal acts with sprouts of terrorism emerging,” said Yang Guang, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing, which reports to China’s cabinet.
Violence escalated significantly between protesters and police over the weekend, as officers shot tear gas into underground subway stations for the first time after mass demonstrations began early June. Police have made more than 600 arrests in recent days.
Protesters had already occupied the airport for days when more flooded in Monday. Some wore black eye patches, waving signs that read “Hong Kong is not safe,” “Shame on the police,” and “An eye for an eye,” turning out to express their anger after one person thought to have been shot by a beanbag round in her right eye was hospitalised.
Stations on the city’s airport express line were filled with confused passengers unable to get to the airport, many of whom were on the phone with family, friends and colleagues to sort backup travel plans, while other visitors disembarked from the train after being turned away at the airport.
Hong Kong airport is the world's 8th busiest, with frequent departures to more than 180 cities, and a hub for travel to much of Asia.
Roads leading to the airport were gridlocked yesterday afternoon, and a nearby hotel was flooded with people looking for a last-minute stay.
Shocking footage of #HongKong riot police charging into a subway station pursuing pro-democracy activists and firing into them at point blank range. I’ve seen police being provoked here but I’m speechless. Carrie Lam says no police inquiry needed they’re investigating themselves. pic.twitter.com/R61BytE6ft
— Stephen McDonell (@StephenMcDonell) August 11, 2019
Many of those whose travel was interrupted expressed support for the protestes. “I think China is facing a difficult time. I am glad they haven’t put out tanks yet," said James Campbell, a 26-year-old civil engineer from Sydney en route to Taipei. "I can see where these protesters are coming from.”
The protests have brought millions into the streets, plunging the former British colony into its most serious political crisis since being returned to Chinese rule and representing the biggest challenge ever to Xi Jinping’s power as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party.
Demonstrations first began in opposition to a now-suspended extradition bill that would have sent people to face trial in mainland China, where Communist Party control of the courts contributes to a 99.9 per cent conviction rate.
Protesters - increasingly angry as police continue to use escalating violence to disperse crowds - have now expanded their demands, calling for wider political reforms including direct leadership elections.
Let us admin HK is a police state. Riot police push down peaceful protestor on the escalator of railway station. pic.twitter.com/gycHF8E8Zo
— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 (@joshuawongcf) August 11, 2019
Despite many mass rallies now ending in violence as night falls with police shooting tear gas, rubber bullets, and foam rounds, broad support has continued to swell and show no signs of splintering.
After all flights were cancelled, protesters and pro-democracy lawmakers began encouraging the crowds to leave out of concern that police might fire tear gas into the airport as dozens of police vans had been spotted en route.
But many continued to stay on, peacefully chanting in the arrivals hall, “Liberate Hong Kong!” and approaching arriving visitors with flyers that listed their demands and explaining the political situation.