By Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse
HONG KONG – Hong Kong’s airport reopened on Tuesday but its administrator warned that flight movements would still be affected, after China said protests that have swept the city over the past two months had begun to show the “sprouts of terrorism.”
Hundreds of pro-democracy protesters staged a new rally on Tuesday at the airport, a day after a massive demonstration there triggered a shutdown at the busy international travel hub.
Only a handful of protesters stayed through the night, and flights resumed at the airport early in the morning. But by afternoon, several hundred demonstrators had returned, responding to a call for a new rally.
Protesters were wearing the signature black of the movement that began in opposition to a bill allowing extradition to mainland China but has morphed into a broader call for democratic freedoms.
They chanted ”Stand with Hong Kong, stand for freedom,” as passengers scrambling to catch rescheduled and delayed flights wheeled their luggage through the airport.
Authorities cancelled all remaining flights into and out of the airport on Monday afternoon after thousands of protesters flooded the building.
Operations resumed early Tuesday morning, but a massive backlog of cancelled flights meant many take-offs were being delayed or cancelled.
Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific said it had cancelled more than 200 flights into and out of the airport on Tuesday, according to its website.
The airport, one of the world’s busiest, blamed demonstrators for halting flights on Monday. The exact trigger for the closure was not clear because protesters occupying the arrivals hall since Friday have been peaceful.
The airport was the latest focus of protests that began two months ago. The sometimes violent protests began as opposition to a now-suspended bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China but have grown into wider calls for democracy.
The protests have plunged the Chinese-ruled territory into its most serious crisis in decades, presenting Chinese leader Xi Jinping with one of his biggest challenges since he came to power in 2012.
Analysts said the disruptions and protests in Hong Kong were unsettling Asian stock markets, and the Hang Seng index opened 1.1% lower on Tuesday.
Embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Tuesday the “lawbreaking activities in the name of freedom” were damaging the rule of law and that it could take a long time for the city to recover from the protests.
The protesters have been switching tactics in recent weeks and more than a dozen sit-ins were planned at hospitals in the city, according to social media posts on Tuesday.
Most of the protesters had left the airport shortly after midnight, with about 50 still there on Tuesday morning.
“Hong Kong International Airport will implement flight rescheduling today with flight movements expected to be affected,” said a notice published on the Hong Kong International Airport’s official mobile app on Tuesday.
Cathay Pacific said it would only operate a limited number of flights for connecting passengers. Airport flight boards showed the likes of Emirates Airline and Virgin Australia had flights scheduled to depart on Tuesday.
China said on Monday protests in the Asian financial hub had reached a critical juncture.
“Protesters have been frequently using extremely dangerous tools to attack the police in recent days, constituting serious crimes with sprouts of terrorism emerging,” said Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office spokesman Yang Guang in Beijing.
Some Hong Kong legal experts say the official description of terrorism could lead to the use of anti-terror laws.
Protesters in turn say police have used excessive force, firing tear gas and bean bag pellets at close range, and are calling for an independent inquiry into the crisis.
Demonstrators say they are fighting the erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement enshrining some autonomy for Hong Kong when China took it back from Britain in 1997.
Hong Kong’s airport is the 8th busiest by passenger traffic, handling 73 million passengers a year.
The closure of the Hong Kong airport added to that pressure. A Reuters reporter saw more than 100 travelers queuing up at Cathay’s ticketing counter early on Tuesday.
“The way to handle last night was chaotic,” said Kate Flannery from Australia, who was travelling to Paris. “The airport authority didn’t deal with the situation. I felt like I was walking around and nobody gave us information.”
A Cathay customer officer at the airport, who declined to provide his name, said nearly all the airline’s flights were full.
“It is possible that the airport authority will cancel more flights as they need to control the air traffic movements at the Hong Kong International Airport,” he said.
Path of no return
Violence during protests in Hong Kong will push the city “down a path of no return,” the city’s leader Carrie Lam warned on Tuesday.
“Violence, no matter if it’s using violence or condoning violence, will push Hong Kong down a path of no return, will plunge Hong Kong society into a very worrying and dangerous situation,” Lam said during a press conference.
“The situation in Hong Kong in the past week has made me very worried that we have reached this dangerous situation,” she added.
Lam defended law enforcement actions Tuesday after protesters prompted an airport shutdown with calls to investigate alleged police brutality.
She told reporters that dialogue would only begin when the violence stopped. She reiterated her support for the police and said they have had to make on-the-spot decisions under difficult circumstances, using “the lowest level of force.”
“After the violence has been stopped, and the chaotic situation that we are seeing could subside,” Lam said, “I as the chief executive will be responsible to rebuild Hong Kong’s economy … to help Hong Kong to move on.”
US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell warned China that any violent crackdown on protests in Hong Kong would be “completely unacceptable,” while Trump administration officials urged all sides to refrain from violence.
“The people of Hong Kong are bravely standing up to the Chinese Communist Party as Beijing tries to encroach on their autonomy and freedom,” McConnell wrote in tweet.
“Any violent crackdown would be completely unacceptable. … The world is watching.”
Travelers support demonstrators
Travelers in Hong Kong’s airport voiced support for pro-democracy demonstrators on Tuesday, despite an overnight occupation of the international transit hub that saw tens of thousands of passengers stranded.
“It may affect me, but I still know what they are doing and I support them so it doesn’t matter, said 27-year-old advertising worker Mag Mak, whose flight back home to Hong Kong from Dubai was delayed by five hours.
“I think the government is so rubbish and they don’t have any response to the protesters,” she added.
Frank Filser, 53, was struggling to reschedule a flight back to Germany to visit his father who has terminal cancer.
But he said he sympathized with the protesters despite the disruption.
“They fight for Hong Kong and that’s their view,” he said.
“Anytime I can go back to Germany, but what about the people who grew up here? This is their home.”
Real estate worker Tibor, a long-term foreign resident of Hong Kong, was waiting at the terminal for a rescheduled flight after his journey on Monday was cancelled.
He said he understood the protests because “it’s really frustrating to live in a society where your government is not really having a dialogue with their own people.”
Others told AFP they were angry at having their travel plans frustrated.
“I don’t mind what they [the protesters] do but they made us five hours delayed,” said 50-year-old Wing Au-yeung, who had stopped off in the city to collect his aged mother before travelling to South Korea with his family.
“They can do what they want but it should not affect other people.”
Not the right time
Malacañang has urged Filipinos to avoid travelling to Hong Kong for now after thousands of protesters swarmed the international airport there.
According to presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, it was “not the right time” to visit Hong Kong after several flights to and from Hong Kong were canceled.
“‘Yung travel ban siguro with respect kung gusto mo pumunta sa Hong Kong. This is not the right time to go there kasi yung flight mo biglang naka-cancel [On the travel ban with respect if you want to visit Hong Kong, this is the not the right time to go there because your flight might be canceled],” Panelo said during a Palace press briefing.
“Avoid muna going there, that’s the advice kasi you’re not sure you’re going to reach Hong Kong in the first place,” he added.
On the proposed ban on deployment of workers to Hong Kong, Panelo said Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III found no need to prohibit such deployment at the moment. He noted that the mass protest was currently limited to the airport.
“Nagkakagulo sa airport. Limited naman ang gulo sa airport [There’s trouble at the airport. It’s limited at the airport],” he said. (With Genalyn Kabiling)