Beijing condemns Hong Kong airport protesters over assault on two mainlanders, compares behaviour to acts of terrorism

Zoe Low

Beijing on Wednesday condemned anti-government protesters for assaulting two mainland Chinese men at Hong Kong International Airport, comparing their behaviour to acts of terrorism, while an injunction was secured to ban demonstrations in all but two designated terminal zones.

On the sixth straight day of protests that crippled flights at the transport hub and led to unprecedented violence on Tuesday night, airlines were scrambling to resume normal operations.

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s chaos, some protesters took to social media to apologise for their behaviour in the airport, admitting they had become agitated too easily and pledged to reflect on their actions, which have caused major disruption for thousands of travellers.

Two corners of the arrival hall where protests are allowed. They are now the only zones at the airport where demonstrations can take place legally. Photo: Handout

As of 2.30pm, 63 outbound flights and the same number of arrivals were cancelled on Wednesday, although dozens of flights managed to depart that morning.

Hong Kong's flagship carrier Cathay Pacific Airways said it had cancelled 272 flights in the past two days, affecting more than 55,000 passengers.

Xu Luying, spokeswoman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under the State Council, China’s cabinet, expressed “extreme anger” and “strongly condemned” the assaults, calling them “nearly acts of terrorism”.

“The radical protesters have totally breached the bottom line of the law, morals and humanity,” Xu said in a statement. “Their behaviour was in extreme contempt for laws, and they have seriously tarnished Hong Kong’s international image.”

The radical protesters have totally breached the bottom line of the law, morals and humanity

Xu Luying, HKMAO spokeswoman

On Tuesday night, two mainland Chinese men were detained for hours by protesters and assaulted. They were suspected to be undercover agents from across the border and had their hands bound by cable ties.

One of them was later confirmed to be a journalist with state-run tabloid Global Times.

On Wednesday the office said both men were still hospitalised, despite Hong Kong’s Hospital Authority saying the pair had been discharged.

The office also hit out at protesters who snatched the baton of an officer. News footage showed the policeman pointing his gun at opponents after a scuffle.

Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, meanwhile, went further in a statement, saying the protesters’ actions were “no different from violence conducted by terrorists”.

It said in a separate statement that protesters had removed their “fake masks” of claiming to be peaceful demonstrators. It added that the protests had affected Hong Kong’s reputation in the eyes of travellers, with passengers, some of them children, prevented from boarding flights.

The statement said the first man attacked by protesters was just a Shenzhen resident who was there to see off his friends. It accused demonstrators of violating human rights, while saluting the Global Times journalist, whom it quoted as having shouted “I support Hong Kong police” while being detained.

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The Airports Council International Asia-Pacific, a trade association, also expressed its “strong condemnation” of the disruption in Hong Kong.

“We stand in solidarity with our colleagues at Hong Kong International Airport and the Airport Authority of Hong Kong,” it said in a statement.

“The aviation industry is a close-knit community and together we stand firm and united in bringing people together, ensuring the safety and security of the travelling public by offering a network of safe and secure airports.”

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At about 2pm on Wednesday, the Airport Authority posted the formal notice detailing the interim court order, which prohibited “inciting, aiding, and/or abetting” any unlawful and wilful obstruction of proper use of the airport, or blocking roads or passageways near it.

In a statement published at the same time, the authority said: “Any person who neglects to abide by or neglects to follow the interim injunction order, or any person who assists another in disobeying the interim injunction order may be held in contempt of court, and is liable to imprisonment or a fine.”

Claiming that unnamed protesters had breached by-laws and caused public nuisance, the body’s application would affect non-travellers or those without permission, prohibiting them from entering the departure hall.

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For the arrivals level, all public demonstrations will also be banned except at two designated areas near the exits on both ends of the hall. The new zones will be positioned away from the flow of passengers.

Under the injunction, anyone loitering or interfering with the authority or the Aviation Security Company (Avseco) from executing the court order will also be viewed as having violated it.

The airport was in recovery mode on Wednesday after anti-government demonstrations the day before grounded flights, as protests brought unprecedented violence to one of the world’s busiest passenger hubs.

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Hong Kong has been rocked by protests and several other non-cooperative movements since June 9, sparked by controversy over the now-shelved extradition bill, which would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent back to mainland China.

The injunction order was granted by the High Court on Tuesday night following a closed-door hearing so secretive that security officers tried to force reporters to leave the court building and denied its occurrence. The hearing lasted for about half an hour. Outside, 10 plain-clothes security officers guarded the area, along with two policemen.

Travellers try to get some rest at Hong Kong International Airport early on Wednesday as flight operators play catch-up after air travel was plunged into disarray by protests. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Sections 17, 18 and 20 of the Airport Authority By-law already prohibit obstruction, loitering and public assembly, except for those with prior permission from the operator.

For five days in a row, the airport had allowed protests in the main part of the arrivals hall even without application.

“The interim injunction expressly provides that nothing in it shall be construed as authorising any demonstration, protest or public order event contrary to the Public Order Ordinance, ” the authority said.

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Senior counsel Anson Wong Man-kit said the injunction order effectively shifted enforcement from police to the court bailiffs to maintain order, and he urged the public to comply.

“The judiciary and rule of law is really the only thing we have,” Wong said. “If we lose the judiciary, we have nothing left.”

By 9pm on Wednesday, about 60 protesters remained in the arrival hall.

Thousands had occupied the terminal on Tuesday and others later moved into departures to bring down operations.

Staff had again placed barriers in front of the check-in counters on Wednesday morning and were checking boarding passes before letting passengers through to the aisles.

In chaotic scenes on Tuesday, protesters occupied the departures area, triggering the closure of check-in counters after 4.30pm.

Some protesters remained in the terminal on Wednesday morning. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

Later on Wednesday, some protesters apologised online for the disruption caused.

“[Delays since Monday], cancellation of flights and undesired changes in itinerary are not what people deserve, and were never our intention,” a group describing itself as “Hongkongers longing for freedom and democracy” said in a statement. “Please understand our difficulties.”

Without referring to specific incidents on Tuesday, the group said that protesters, who were under mounting pressure after two months of demonstrations, were “provoked” and “overreacted” at the airport. “For this we feel heartbroken and helpless,” the group stated.

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The administrative members of the Telegram group, a messaging platform where protesters have mostly been communicating, also announced a suspension of further airport protests — but not a complete end.

“What happened on Tuesday was not perfect but it does not mean that the sit-in is officially terminated,” a message to some 37,000 members in the channel stated.

“What we need to do now is to look forward, maintain confidence in ourselves and our peers, reflect on our deeds, and believe that we will perform better next time.”

Riot police had moved in on Tuesday night after the first mainland man was detained and assaulted by protesters. The clashes led to chaos and pepper spray was used by the force.

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The government-backed Hong Kong Tourism Board, reprimanding the protesters, said it regretted their decision to paralyse the airport’s operations, which jeopardised the city’s global image.

The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, the city’s largest business group, also criticised protesters for occupying the airport, which it said caused unnecessary distress and financial losses for Hong Kong, international travellers and airlines.

“We feel the airport was correct in seeking a court injunction order to remove protesters,” the chamber said. “Left unaddressed, the closure of the airport would have seriously tarnished Hong Kong’s reputation and role as an air transport hub for the region.”

An alliance of 14 tourism industry stakeholders joined forces to criticise the violence at the airport, urging protesters to leave as soon as possible. It said protesters had disrupted airport operations and forced the cancellation of flights and travel tours, which seriously tainted Hong Kong’s reputation.

The stakeholders, led by the Travel Industry Council, included tourism sector lawmaker Yiu Si-wing and tourism bodies from Taiwan and Japan.

The affected flights meant that some travellers were stranded at the airport for the third day in a row.

Riot police moved in as protests escalated on Tuesday night at the airport. Photo: Felix Wong

Judy Wang, a 24-year-old Taiwanese tourist was among those left in limbo after missing her flight on Tuesday amid what she said were confusing messages about her flight arrangements.

She said that she could understand the protest and the action taken by the airport, but was furious at the airline and the ticketing company.

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“We bought the ticket from Trip.com and they sent us a message about the cancellation of our flight last night. We also checked with ground staff to make sure the flight was cancelled,” she said.

“But when I went back to the airline to get a proof of flight cancellation for claiming insurance this morning, they refused and said the flight actually departed.”

Travellers try to get on their flights as major disruption mires the airport for the third day in a row. Photo: K.Y. Cheng

At the departure hall, a shop assistant, who did not want to be identified, said sales were down 60 to 70 per cent since protests started.

At the arrival hall, Jenny Greg, a staff member of cafe Pret A Manger said: “We closed our store one hour earlier in the past two days and lost about HK$30,000. But we still earned HK$20,000 in sales, mainly from protesters.”

Taiwanese national Adele Peng, 24, who has been working in Hong Kong for two years, said she believed protesters would leave the airport with the injunction notice.

“I just hope society will return to normal soon,” added Peng, who was at the airport to send off friends.

I just hope society will return to normal soon

Adele Peng, Taiwanese worker in Hong Kong

A 26-year-old protester, who only gave his name as Thomas, said he was not too worried about having a limited area at the airport to set up demonstrations.

He was among protesters on Monday, but not Tuesday when violence broke out.

Thomas said he believed protesters had become suspicious of each other after police were seen passing themselves off as demonstrators on Sunday.

“All this time on the front lines, we never knew each other, we can only trust the person next to us and hope we do not get arrested. Now we no longer know who to trust.”

Additional reporting by Su Xinqi

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