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Protesters, some wearing masks over their noses and mouths, carry signs, one of which reads “Hong Kong is dangerous,” and fill the arrivals hall in the Hong Kong international airport.
Protesters occupy the arrival hall of the Hong Kong International Airport during a demonstration on August 12, 2019.
Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

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Hong Kong airport protests escalate with canceled flights and police standoffs

Another tense day of protests in Hong Kong.

Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Pro-democracy protesters shut down the airport in Hong Kong for the second day in a row, occupying the terminals and forcing the suspension of outgoing flights.

This is the fifth day of the airport demonstration, which began as a sit-in where protesters greeted travelers on arriving flights with leaflets and chants in support of Hong Kong. The protests escalated on Monday after demonstrators objected to police tactics — including firing tear gas and rubber bullets — during other protests in Hong Kong over the weekend. Monday’s protests forced the cancellation of more than 100 flights as people flooded into and took over the airport.

Crowds dispersed and flights resumed Tuesday, but later in the day, protesters returned and their numbers swelled. They blocked people from reaching their gates, using luggage carts to barricade entrances so travelers couldn’t get through — though some carried signs that said “sorry” to apologize for the chaos. The demonstrations eventually forced the airport to again cancel check-ins for departures.

A woman hands her luggage to security guards over the heads of masked protesters sitting in the Hong Kong airport.
A tourist gives her luggage to security guards as she tries to enter the departures gate during another demonstration by pro-democracy protesters at Hong Kong’s international airport on August 13, 2019.
Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images
People sit in protest in the Hong Kong airport.
Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters block access to the departure gates on August 13, 2019.
Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images
A protester holding a sign explaining five major demands.
A pro-democracy protester holds a placard with demands on August 13, 2019.
Philip Fong/AFP/Getty Images

Tensions increased late Tuesday when some protesters clashed inside the airport with riot police who tried to remove demonstrators. The South China Morning Post also reported that officials had received a court order allowing authorities to remove protesters from the airport.

While the airport protests were largely peaceful until the late Tuesday standoff, one video posted on social media showed protesters swarming a police officer, taking his baton, and beating him with it. The office pulled out his gun, but did not fire any shots.

The Global Times, a state-run Chinese media outlet, also said protesters had also cornered one of its reporters, accusing him of pretending to be a journalist. (Other witnesses said other protesters tried to intervene.) Those incidents are also likely to fuel suspicions among protesters that Hong Kong police are disguising themselves as demonstrators to cause divisions — something authorities confirmed they did on Sunday.

Hong Kong is one of the world’s busiest airports, so the disruption to the major travel hub is likely designed to attract global attention — although some worried such high-profile chaos could also do the opposite, thinning sympathy for the protesters.

Some travelers complained about the tactics. “I don’t mind what they do but they made us five hours delayed,” a 50-year-old traveler from South Korea told the AFP. “They can do what they want but it should not affect other people.”

And the images of what looked like protesters beating up a police officer are likely prime fodder for Chinese state-run media, which has tried to wage a disinformation campaign for weeks against the demonstrators in Hong Kong and paint them as disgruntled, lawless vandals.

All eyes are on China for what happens next

The latest protest came as tensions have risen between the Hong Kong’s leadership and Beijing, which is growing increasingly impatient with the demonstrations that began as a challenge to a controversial extradition bill and have since turned into a broader fight to protect Hong Kong’s freedoms and civil liberties against encroachment from the Chinese government.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to the control of China in 1997, but as part of that arrangement, it will remain semi-autonomous until 2047, under what’s known as the “two system, one country” rule.

But Beijing has gotten impatient and tried to pull Hong Kong closer under its control. The extradition bill that sparked this movement symbolized that encroachment, as it would have allowed Hong Kong to extradite people accused of crimes to places that lacked formal extradition treaties with the city-state, including mainland China. Many feared authorities in Beijing would use it to target Hongkongers who rejected its authority.

On Tuesday, before the airport protests escalated, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam condemned the protests. “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,” she said.

Lam has suspended the controversial extradition bill, but she’s refused to withdraw it entirely — and protesters fear she’s just biding her time until the demonstrations die down and she can push it through. Protesters have called on Lam to resign, though she’s resisted for months.

It’s also not clear if her replacement would be more sympathetic to the protesters’ efforts, as anyone who takes over for her would almost certainly be handpicked by Beijing.

China has also stepped up its pressure on the protesters, using increasingly harsh language to describe the massive demonstrations — including noting on Monday that the “first signs of terrorism” are starting to appear — and conducting military exercises near the border in what many interpret as a veiled threat.

President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday that US intelligence “has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong.”

“Everyone should be calm and safe!” the president added.

Chinese state-run media had previously posted a propaganda video showing Chinese troops gathering in Shenzhen, a city in mainland China that borders Hong Kong, so it’s not exactly clear what Trump is talking about here.

Earlier in the day, Trump called Hong Kong a “tough situation” and said he hoped the situation “works out for everybody, including China, by the way.”

But this situation working out for China is exactly what the protesters fear.

A traveler stands amid protesters during a sit-in rally at the Hong Kong Airpot on August 13, 2019.
Kin Cheung/AP
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