HONG KONG — Thousands of anti-government demonstrators flooded Hong Kong’s airport on Monday, in a stark display of the power of the protests to bring one of the world’s busiest transportation hubs to a near halt.
But the escalating tensions have also prompted a more ominous tone from the Chinese leadership. The central government on Monday condemned the protesters’ previous actions, including the use of a gasoline bomb, saying they had “begun to show signs of terrorism.”
Over the weekend, several armored personnel carriers and trucks were also seen in Shenzhen, a mainland city near Hong Kong, according to a report in The Global Times, a nationalist mainland tabloid. The vehicles were from the People’s Armed Police, which handles civil disturbances. The newspaper said they were assembling “in advance of apparent large-scale exercises.”
This summer’s protests in Hong Kong began in early June in opposition to legislation that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party. That proposal has since been suspended but not fully withdrawn, and it continues to drive antigovernment sentiment. Other issues have loomed larger in recent weeks, including the stalled promise of more direct elections and the use of force by the police against demonstrators.
Members of the largely leaderless movement had called for the demonstration at the airport after a night of clashes on Sunday, during which the police fired tear gas inside one subway station and chased protesters down an escalator in another. Many airport protesters on Monday were angry that a woman at one of the Sunday demonstrations had been hit in her eye by a projectile.
“Yesterday’s escalation of violence and repression on the part of police, I think it’s a consequence of the very clear stance from Beijing that they are unconditionally behind the police and are relying on them to quell the protests in Hong Kong,” said Samson Yuen, an assistant professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong who studies local social movements.
As the clashes intensify, Chinese and Hong Kong officials are escalating their criticism of the protesters.
“Hong Kong’s radical demonstrators have repeatedly attacked police officers with extremely dangerous means,” said Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, which oversees Chinese policy toward the two cities. “These have already constituted serious violent crimes and have begun to show signs of terrorism.”
Steve Li Kwai-wah, a senior police superintendent in Hong Kong, disputed that characterization. “We are not at that stage yet,” he said, citing the United Nations definition of terrorism as a guide.
Protesters gathered at the airport throughout the afternoon on Monday, eventually filling the arrival hall in the main terminal, before more protesters went upstairs to the departure hall.
The airport said in a statement that operations had been “seriously disrupted as a result of the public assembly at the airport today.” A Hong Kong official called it an “illegal assembly.”
The cancellations affected thousands of passengers at Hong Kong International Airport, which handled nearly 75 million passengers last year. The airport said in the afternoon that all flights had been canceled for the rest of the day, other than those already en route to Hong Kong. Almost 150 departures and more than two dozen arrivals were affected, according to the airport’s website.
Some people said they agreed with the protesters’ pro-democracy agenda.
“If they have to stand for something, as long as it’s peaceful, I can understand that,” said Africa Alvarez, 48, who was flying home to Barcelona. “I can’t take my flight against something which is more important.”
Others expressed frustration.
“I am sympathetic for people who want changes, but I’m not sure it’s the best way to go about it,” said Pauline Price, 52, a movie theater manager from New Zealand.
She said protesters risked losing support if their “ad hoc” moves became too disruptive: “Hong Kong was stable. It was one of the safest places in the world. This damages the image of Hong Kong.”
As passengers and protesters streamed out of the airport, they formed long lines for taxis and the Airport Express train. Many protesters walked to the nearby town of Tung Chung to take the subway.
Antigovernment protesters had staged a three-day sit-in at the airport over the weekend, during which they handed out pamphlets to travelers explaining their grievances. That protest, which started on Friday, did not noticeably disrupt services.
[Cathay Pacific Airways, Hong Kong’s flag carrier, is under pressure from the Chinese government.]
Hong Kong tycoons and prominent businesses have joined China’s central government in condemning violent protests. But the aggressive approach by the police could increase public support for the movement, as images of bloodied protesters circulate on social media and in local news outlets.
Five years ago, the use of tear gas by the police against student activists helped set off a protest movement that occupied roadways for nearly three months. In June, aggressive use of tear gas and pepper spray was followed by the biggest march in Hong Kong this summer, with as many as two million people participating, according to the organizers.
Hong Kong residents were especially appalled by confrontations on Sunday between protesters and police officers that took place inside subway stations, part of the city’s famously reliable public transit system.
At the Kwai Fong station, in the New Territories region of Hong Kong that borders mainland China, officers pursuing protesters who had gathered at a nearby police station fired tear gas behind the turnstiles, in what was apparently their first use of tear gas in an enclosed area. The police also charged at demonstrators crowded at the top of a long escalator in the Tai Koo station on Hong Kong Island, swinging batons and firing pepper ball rounds from a short distance.
In the Causeway Bay neighborhood on Hong Kong Island, police officers and men disguised as protesters grabbed a man and pinned his bleeding head to the ground as he moaned and said that his tooth was broken, according to a report by Hong Kong Free Press, an online news outlet.
In Tsim Sha Tsui, a popular shopping district on the Kowloon peninsula across the harbor from Hong Kong Island, a woman needed emergency surgery after being hit in her right eye, apparently by a projectile, according to local news reports. Her status was not immediately known.
Terence Mak, an assistant police commissioner, said it was unclear how the woman had been injured.
“We don’t have enough information right now,” he said. “There were many weapons on scene, such as bean bag rounds as well as steel balls,” a reference to slingshots that he said were used by protesters.
The injury to the woman in particular angered protesters at the airport, many of whom covered their right eyes with bandages in an expression of solidarity.
Noel Tse, a 29-year-old nurse, said she had joined the airport protest because she thought the police had acted with excessive force against demonstrators on Sunday night.
“This incident is no longer a political issue,” she said. “It is a battle between right and wrong.”