Hong Kong Grounds Flights as Mass Sit-in Shuts Down Airport After Weekend of Protests

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All departing flights were grounded as chaos engulfed the Hong Kong International Airport Monday, after thousands of pro-democracy protesters filled the travel hub to protest police brutality. Many eventually left the airport, fearing threats of more police action, but hundreds of activists remain. The latest escalation follows a weekend of bloody clashes between the police and protesters. Confrontations turned especially violent on Sunday night as riot police fired tear gas inside a subway station and were filmed beating protesters with batons. Meanwhile, Beijing has escalated its rhetoric against the protesters, with a Chinese official saying their actions show signs of “terrorism.” It’s been 10 weeks since mass demonstrations erupted in Hong Kong, when millions took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of an extradition bill that would have sent people from Hong Kong to mainland China to face criminal charges. Demands quickly escalated for the resignation of Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam, an independent investigation into police brutality against demonstrators, and pro-independence reforms. We speak with Mary Hui, a reporter for the business news outlet Quartz who has been covering the mass demonstrations for more than two months.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to Hong Kong, where all departing flights have been grounded as chaos engulfs the Hong Kong International Airport. Thousands of pro-democracy protesters filled the airport Monday to protest police brutality. Many have now left the airport, fearing threats of more police action, but hundreds of activists remain. The latest escalation follows a weekend of bloody clashes between the police and protesters. Confrontations turned especially violent Sunday night as riot police fired tear gas inside a subway station, were filmed beating protesters with batons. Others were severely injured on the streets as undercover police in the crowd began arresting people, pinning some protesters down against the pavement and violently restraining them. Police struck one woman in the eye with a projectile, sparking outrage. This is protester Catrina Ko, speaking at a news conference Monday.

CATRINA KO: Hong Kong has just seen its darkest weekend in its contemporary history. We saw Kwai Fong station being turned into a gas chamber, and protesters being pushed down a moving escalator by the police at Taikoo, where they had also fired at the protesters within a meter’s range of an air gun. In Tsuen Wan and North Point, we saw civilians being attacked by members of triads, whose actions were harbored and supported by the police.

AMY GOODMAN: Catrina Ko’s face was covered as she was speaking. This comes as Beijing has escalated its rhetoric against the protesters, with the Chinese officials saying their actions show signs of terrorism. Last week, China ordered Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific to suspend any staff who support pro-democracy protests.

It’s been 10 weeks since mass demonstrations erupted in Hong Kong, when millions took to the streets to demand the withdrawal of an extradition bill that would have sent people from Hong Kong to mainland China to face criminal charges. Demands quickly escalated for the resignation of Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam, an independent investigation into police brutality against demonstrators, and pro-independence reforms.

Pro-democracy activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Joshua Wong tweeted Monday, “Hundred thousands protestors gathered at HK international airport. We successful shut down the airport and force them cancel all flight. Calls for democracy and free election will never stop. We oppose #HKPoliceState!”

Well, for more, we go to Hong Kong, where we’re joined by Mary Hui, a reporter for the business news outlet Quartz who’s been covering the mass demonstrations for more than two months.

Mary Hui, welcome back to Democracy Now! Describe what’s happening now at the airport.

MARY HUI: Yes. I was at the airport earlier this afternoon, and it was just completely packed with a sea of black, protesters just filling every single inch of the airport, both the arrivals and the departure hall. They all very peacefully and orderly sat down on the floor or walking slowly around the hall floor, just chanting slogans, venting their anger, the palpable anger that’s just boiling and brimming. They are angry at the police, at the alleged brutality that the police unleashed, as you’ve mentioned, on Sunday against protesters on multiple occasions. The last that I saw, from about an hour, two hours ago, was that protesters actually started leaving the airport and started marching on the road towards another town. And so, the latest that I see is that the arrivals hall was actually fairly — the crowds there have dwindled.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain the original reason for the protests and what they have now become, what the protesters are demanding.

MARY HUI: Right. So, this all goes back to June, 10 weeks ago now. All of this really started when an extradition bill, put forward by the Hong Kong government, which would have allowed citizens to be extradited to mainland China to face charges, where they don’t have any guarantees of a fair trial and where the rule of law is not assured. So that really took people out onto the streets to protest against this.

But in the weeks since, that has really evolved. The demands have evolved to include much broader demands, including setting up an independent commission to look into police misconduct; broader democracy, so harking back to the Umbrella Movement of 2014; and, just more generally, government accountability.

A lot of the anger now is directed against the police. We really did see a change and a shift in public opinion after this armed mob attack against civilians at a train station in late July. And the reports that came out from that appeared to show that police were either colluding with the armed mobsters who perpetrated the attack, or at least did not do enough to stop the attack. And that really got people out and angry, because what were the police doing, if not protecting citizens? And then we have yesterday night’s unleashing of somewhat horrific actions by the police, as we saw on multiple occasions. And people have really rallied around this single hatred and frustration directed against the police at this moment.

AMY GOODMAN: We played just that protester from the news conference today, her face covered, wearing sunglasses and a mask over her face. Can you explain why she’s covering her face?

MARY HUI: A lot of people are afraid of being identified. A lot of these rallies have not gained a letter of permission from the police and hence are technically illegal. And so, the police have wide powers to then charge people for unlawful assembly or rioting. And given how rioting is defined under this colonial-era law in Hong Kong, it’s a very vague charge. And you can be charged for rioting even if just passing by and being associated with people who are themselves carrying out violent acts. And so, people are very afraid and worried.

And, of course, there is also the question of how much control China has now over Hong Kong’s judiciary. Hong Kong has long prided itself on an independent judiciary, where the rule of law is watertight and solid and held up to international standards. But I think, more and more, people are worried — and rightly so — that the rule of law perhaps is being chipped away, and a more authoritarian way of doing things is being brought in to the city.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the Chinese government is talking about charging protesters with terrorism. Can you explain the significance of this, Mary Hui?

MARY HUI: Yes. The rhetoric from various Chinese officials have really ramped up over the last two weeks. They have described the protesters in one broad brush stroke and said that they’re all violent and radical. And, of course, from what we see on the ground, that is not true at all. The vast majority of protesters are peaceful. And so, what the narrative that the Chinese government is trying to put forward, of course, is that all these protesters are out to topple or looking to topple the regime, looking to challenge national sovereignty, looking to challenge “one country, two systems.” And so, as that has been ramped up, there has been, of course, talk of whether protesters are toeing or crossing the solid red lines that China so likes to put down.

And so, of course, there is also worry that there may be the possibility of troops from the People’s Liberation Army being brought into Hong Kong. That has not been ruled out by China, though they have also placed their full faith and unwavering support behind the Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong police and told them to do whatever is necessary — to paraphrase them — to bring back social order and law — social stability and law and order.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you expect is going to happen in the airport now? Are protesters afraid of what the Chinese government will do, now that they’ve closed the airport?

MARY HUI: Well, speaking to a number of protesters — 

AMY GOODMAN: One of the busiest airports in the world.

MARY HUI: Mm-hmm, yes. Speaking to several protesters at the airport this afternoon, I asked them the same question: What do they expect to happen next? And a lot of them really are feeling lost right now. They feel that the government has not responded to any of their demands, that the difference between right and wrong, and justice and injustice, has been completely toppled overnight. And so, I expect the protests to continue in whatever shape or form. It’s very hard to predict, given that the protests themselves have been largely leaderless, quite fluid and unpredictable. That’s been the spirit of the protest movement so far, and so it’s hard to say what exactly will happen in the next few days and weeks. But what is for sure is that the simmering tensions and anger from the protesters are not going to go anywhere, and they will have to be expressed one way or another.

AMY GOODMAN: The South China Morning Post is reporting flights from Hong Kong airport will resume 6 a.m. Tuesday. Do you believe that, Mary?

MARY HUI: I think so. I think as protesters have decided that they have made their statement, that they have achieved what they set out to achieve, which was to send a loud message to get the world to realize what it is that the police has done, and to bring some sort of disruption to the airport, they’ve realized that perhaps this is the time to back off. They’ve probably learned the lesson from 2014, from the Umbrella Movement, that if they continue to inconvenience people for too long, they then start losing public support. And so, five years on, I think they’ve learned that lesson and realize that once they’ve achieved the immediate goal, they can move on and go elsewhere and focus on the next thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Mary Hui, we want to thank you for being with us, Hong Kong-based writer, reporter with the news outlet Quartz, has been reporting on the extradition bill, has been covering the protests for over two months, speaking to us from Hong Kong.

When we come back, we turn to the mass demonstrations in Russia, where up to 60,000 protesters marched in Moscow on Saturday in the largest anti-government protest in years. Stay with us.

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