Protesters converged on Hong Kong’s international airport Friday, kicking off a three-day sit-in and the first of several rallies planned for the weekend.
Chanting “free Hong Kong!” thousands of black-shirted pro-democracy activists filled the arrivals hall, greeting travelers with pamphlets, posters and banners about the movement that has rocked Asia’s financial center for nine consecutive weeks.
“Dear travelers, welcome to Hong Kong” read the English-language leaflets handed out by the protesters’ “tourist reception.” “You’ve arrived in a broken, torn-apart city, not the one you have once pictured. Yet for this Hong Kong, we fight.”
The airport demonstration is the latest move seeking to disrupt daily life in the city and targeting Hong Kong’s reputation as global hub for transit and commerce. It comes less than one week after a general strike brought the entrepôt to a standstill, disrupting plane, train and road transit.
“We think it’s important for the international community to know what’s happening in this city,” says Kitty, a 24-year-old protester who took the day off work to join the airport demonstration. “This is a peaceful place, but we have been pushed to do this by [Hong Kong leader] Carrie Lam and her government. We have tried protesting, but the government is not paying heed to us. So now we have to do everything we can to raise awareness.”
Hong Kong’s deepening political crisis has proven a formidable challenge to the Chinese government’s authority. While the protests kicked off in June over a now-suspended extradition proposal, the movement has since expanded to include broader aims, like calling for greater democracy and challenging Beijing’s control over the semiautonomous city.
Marches, rallies and sit-ins have become a near-daily occurrence, with many ending in riot police deploying tear gas and rubber bullets, while a hardcore contingent of young protesters hurl back bricks and lay siege to police stations.
Earlier this week, several countries, including the U.S., Australia and New Zealand, issued travel warnings for Hong Kong. Washington advised U.S. citizens to “exercise increased caution” due to the volatile nature of the sometimes “confrontational” protests.
At the airport, some demonstrators in the ersatz welcoming committee warned visitors about the profusion of tear gas that police have fired across the city, including in tourist hotspots and dense residential neighborhoods. Officers said 800 canisters were fired just on Monday, almost as many as all preceding weeks combined. That day ended with 148 people arrested in the largest single-day crackdown to date.
A similar airport protest on July 26 ended without incident, and Friday’s gathering, though it lacked official approval for assembly, appeared subdued. As evening fell, there was no indication of an impending police clampdown, even as more protesters joined after work.
Tourists came up to take pictures of the protesters, who sang “Do You Hear the People Sing?”from “Les Miserable”, and handed out fliers in a variety of languages that said things like “welcome to Hong Kong, not China” and “please ask me about Hong Kong.” At least three people waved big American flags, while a banner was unfurled that read “Liberate HK Revolution Now.”
“Sorry for the inconvenience we are fighting for the future of our home,” one protester’s sign read.
“I think the majority of tourists are excited about the movement, and it’s great to see it, to be a part of a historic moment,” says Kirsten Weymar, 47, who was transiting through Hong Kong on a return trip to New York. She added that she and her son did not go into the city in the morning for fear of encountering tear gas.
In response to tourist concerns and the spate of travel warnings, the Hong Kong government issued a statement Thursday insisting the territory remains “a welcoming city for tourists and travelers from around the world.”
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said in a press conference Friday that all the disruptive protests are negatively impacting the city’s economy and are “off-putting to tourists.”
“We have economic issues, we have transport disruption issues, we may later have medical issues…related to this crisis,” she said a briefing while flanked by representatives from various business sectors.
Hong Kong’s airport, one of the busiest in the world, continue to operate as usual but appeared to step up safety protocols Friday in anticipation of the weekend sit-in. Only departing passengers with tickets and valid travel documents and staff with IDs were allowed to enter the cordoned off check-in area. But there appeared to be no major flight disruptions or backlogs entering or leaving the airport.
Last Monday, more than 200 flights had to be canceled after pilots, ground staff and flight attendants reportedly called in sick.
On Friday, ground staff voiced support for the protesters, though did not participate in the sit-in.
Additional protests are planned across the city this weekend, although at least one gathering has been banned by police and another has not sought official permission. If the unauthorized actions go ahead, they risk being labelled “unlawful assemblies” and could trigger possible confrontation with police.
—Reporting by Amy Gunia, Abhishyant Kidangoor and Laignee Barron / Hong Kong