Soul Searching Among Hong Kong Protesters After Chaos at Airport

ImageOn Wednesday, protesters at Hong Kong’s airport offered travelers apologies, aware of the negative image they had presented in scuffles the day before.
On Wednesday, protesters at Hong Kong’s airport offered travelers apologies, aware of the negative image they had presented in scuffles the day before.CreditCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times
  • Aug. 14, 2019, TNYTimes

HONG KONG — Hong Kong protesters apologized on Wednesday and appeared to engage in soul searching about their increasingly confrontational tactics, after activists attacked two men at the airport in scenes that Chinese authorities described as “close to terrorism.”

Protests this week at the airport, one of the world’s busiest, caused hundreds of flight cancellations and delivered a blow to a symbol of Hong Kong’s efficiency and economic prominence.

The airport said Wednesday that at 2 p.m. it would begin limiting terminal access to ticketed passengers and airport workers. The airport obtained a temporary court injunction, which threatened to eliminate the transportation hub as one of the protesters’ most visible venues for demonstrations.

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Demonstrations at the airport began Friday and stayed peaceful for days, as protesters made their case to many of the 200,000 passengers it handles each day. But uglier scenes developed on Tuesday, as a few scuffles broke out between protesters and travelers, who for the first time were being blocked from the departure gates.

Video
2:15Protesters and the Police Face Off at Hong Kong’s Airport

Hong Kong riot police officers confronted antigovernment protesters occupying the city’s airport on Tuesday, the second straight day of demonstrations.CreditCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

In the evening, with tensions rising, some protesters surrounded, tied up and beat two men from mainland China — one they suspected of being a security officer — while the other proved to be a reporter for a Communist Party-owned newspaper. Riot police officers briefly entered the front doors of the airport, and one drew his pistol after a scuffle with protesters.

[Here’s a guide to what prompted the Hong Kong protests and how they evolved.]

On Wednesday, protesters seemed well aware of the negative image they had presented. They are navigating a tricky situation, as continued violence by the protesters could risk losing support among the general public for their movement. In their apologies, they played to their desperation, the sense that they had limited options as the government ignored their demands.

“We apologize for our behavior but we are just too scared,” read one post on a messaging channel used by protesters, which gained wider distribution on other social media. “Our police shot us, government betrayed us, social institutions failed us. Please help us.”

“Please accept our sincere apology to all travelers, press reporters, paramedics,” read another post. “We will learn from our mistakes. Please give us a second chance to prove ourselves that we can be better.”

Some protesters said that recent police tactics, including undercover officers apparently dressing as protesters to make arrests, had contributed to a sense of fear. Video of one recent arrest showed officers, one in the black T-shirt and yellow helmet commonly worn by demonstrators, grinding a protester’s bloodied face into the pavement.

ImageFu Guohao, a reporter for a Chinese state-run newspaper, was taken from the airport early Wednesday after being tied up and beaten by demonstrators.
Fu Guohao, a reporter for a Chinese state-run newspaper, was taken from the airport early Wednesday after being tied up and beaten by demonstrators.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

“We hope everyone, including travelers in and out of Hong Kong, would also understand the stress, the panickiness, the suspicion, the restlessness involved in the crowd at the airport ever since the Hong Kong police force’s admission of masquerading a certain number of officers as protesters with the aim of getting them arrested,” Claudia Mo, a pro-democratic legislator, said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Later Wednesday night, the police fired tear gas at protesters who demonstrated in the neighborhood of Sham Shui Po, the site of a similar confrontation on Sunday.

The protests — which began over a now-suspended plan to allow extraditions to mainland China, but have grown to include calls for more direct elections and investigations into the police’s use of force — have been largely leaderless. A march in June drew as many as two million people, according to organizers, and thousands have continued to join near-daily demonstrations.

No single voice speaks for all the participants. Some embrace nonviolence, while others say confrontation is needed because the government has ignored the calls of peaceful protesters. Thus far, protesters have embraced overall messages of solidarity, despite differing beliefs about the best strategies.

On Wednesday, some cited a recent letter from Edward Leung, an influential activist imprisoned on charges of rioting and assaulting a police officer, that called on protesters to reflect on whether specific actions would help achieve their goals. It seemed to suggest the violent tactics at the airport had gone too far.

Image
Security was tightened at the departures area on Wednesday.
Security was tightened at the departures area on Wednesday.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

“Of course, true justice is still hasn’t arrived, and perhaps therefore your hearts are filled with anger. This is human nature,” he wrote. “But I urge you not to be controlled by hatred. In a time of calamity, you must always think rationally.”

China, which has been striking an increasingly strident tone with the protests, played up the chaos at the airport, as part of a broader propaganda push to discredit the movement. The violence at the airport by the protesters received prominent coverage in mainland China’s state media. “What a shame for Hong Kong,” People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, said in a message on social media.

A quote from the reporter who was beaten, “I support the Hong Kong police,” became a top trending term on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform. The reporter, Fu Guohao, is doing well and was not seriously injured, said Hu Xijin, editor in chief of Global Times, the nationalist tabloid that employs him.

“It’s the utmost disgrace for the protesters to treat a reporter like this,” Mr. Hu said in a message. “This shows that they have lost their rationality. Hatred has muddled their minds.”

ImageThe Daily Poster

Listen to ‘The Daily’: Inside Hong Kong’s Airport

Protesters want a government that looks out for their interests, not just Beijing’s. To make their point, they crippled a symbol of the city’s global stature.
0:00/23:41

Listen to ‘The Daily’: Inside Hong Kong’s Airport

Hosted by Michael Barbaro, produced by Alexandra Leigh Young and Eric Krupke, and edited by Lisa Tobin and M.J. Davis

Protesters want a government that looks out for their interests, not just Beijing’s. To make their point, they crippled a symbol of the city’s global stature.

michael barbaro
From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.” [MUSIC] Today, inside Hong Kong’s airport, thousands of protesters are trying to send a message to the people of mainland China. What the people of mainland China are making of that message. It’s Wednesday, August 14th. Javier Hernandez, how did you come to be at the airport in Hong Kong on Monday?
javier hernandez
Well, I’m a Beijing correspondent for The Times, and I had been in Hong Kong for several days reporting on these protests as they reached this breaking point. So I was headed home. I had packed my bags. I had headed to the airport. And then suddenly, my phone just started buzzing with alerts. And I looked down, and there were all these reports about mass chaos at the airport, about flights being canceled, about protesters kind of taking over the terminal. So I hopped on the train and headed out there.
[non-english speech over loudspeaker]

speaker
We will soon arrive at Hong Kong International Airport.
javier hernandez
Already on the train, you could sort of sense this intense sense of unrest. There were protesters just filling up the cars. They’re all wearing their black T-shirts, which was kind of a signature of this movement. You could sense the protest was building.
speaker
Airport. Doors will open on the left for Terminal 1.
javier hernandez
So I get off the train.
javier hernandez
I’m here in the main arrivals hall of the Hong Kong airport, and there is a crowd of people just sitting here. They break into cheers. [PROTESTERS]
javier hernandez
It’s usually this dull place, you know, where you just see a lot of businessmen and other people lining up in the first class lounges. But on this day, you know, you look out and you just see a sea of people. There was just no space to move at all. It was really just a sense of chaos and not knowing what might happen.
speaker
Stand with Hong Kong. Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong. Fight for freedom.
javier hernandez
So I walked in, you know, thinking still that I could maybe catch my flight. So I ran up to the departures hall, and it quickly became clear that that wasn’t going to be possible. There were people kind of blocking the way to the departures hall. People had thrown up these luggage carts to use as a barrier, in some cases, to stop people from getting through. I looked on the walls, and there was graffiti, various slogans from the protesters. You could start to hear announcements from the airlines saying there are no flights going, it’s not safe, people should just leave.
speaker
Attention, please. Passengers are reminded
javier hernandez
So it felt like really that the protesters had taken over.
javier hernandez
They’re taping signs to the floor, portraits of protesters and anti-police slogans.
michael barbaro
So these protesters have essentially shut down the airport.
javier hernandez
They shut it down, and very quickly.
michael barbaro
And Javier, why the airport? What’s the significance of that as a location for these protesters?
javier hernandez
Well, I think it’s a icon of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is such a global financial center. And in Asia in particular, Hong Kong is kind of this hub for everything. And so they knew that if they occupied this airport, if they were successful in stopping people from passing through, they could not only attract a lot of attention in the news media, but they could also reach a lot of people who might end up passing through the airport. You can imagine people who are bleary-eyed from their long trips from New York landing suddenly in Hong Kong and coming out to this sea of protesters chanting and holding signs. And part of that, increasingly, is also to talk to people from China. Every day, there are so many visitors from the mainland who come to Hong Kong. And this is an opportunity for these young protesters to speak directly to people in the mainland, to counter Beijing’s propaganda machine.
michael barbaro
So this is a rare opportunity for these protesters in Hong Kong to talk directly to mainland China, where a lot of information doesn’t get through.
javier hernandez
That’s right. And it really comes as the mainland has been trying to portray Hong Kong as a place of kind of spoiled brats, in many ways. They feel like Hong Kong has benefited a lot from its association with mainland China, that China has invested in infrastructure, China has helped to build its financial system. And so when they look at Hong Kong these days, they feel like, why are you protesting? What more could you ever want? And it really goes to this fundamental contradiction, I think, between the mainland and Hong Kong. In the mainland, the economy is central, and people consider economic success to equate with happiness. In Hong Kong, I think it’s much more complicated, much more like a Western society, where money is obviously extremely important, but people also want a bit more than that. And so you see this kind of collision course that these two different societies are on, one that believes in stability and economic prosperity, and the other that’s looking more for a voice and a seat at the table. When you talk to these protesters, the first thing they’ll tell you is we don’t want to turn into the mainland. We want to be special. We don’t want courts that are controlled by the Communist Party. We don’t want a press that has no ability to criticize the government. And so when you sit in the airport and kind of listen, what you’re hearing really, I think, is this passionate defense of democracy. And what these Hong Kong people want the world to understand is that they are going to stand up and prevent any kind of effort by the mainland to turn Hong Kong into another Chinese city.
michael barbaro
And Javier, from what you’re seeing through this admittedly limited window at the airport, are the protesters able to get through to mainland Chinese with that message?
javier hernandez
I think it’s really tough for them, and it mostly falls on deaf ears.
javier hernandez
What do the mainlanders say when you
speaker
Ask for the democracy?
javier hernandez
Yeah.
speaker
They have the question mark over their head, what is democracy. Their faces, like, disagree with what you say.
javier hernandez
I was talking to a young woman today. She had been standing there all day at the arrivals hall, with the explicit goal of trying to get through to mainlanders. And she told me that she really felt like it wasn’t successful, that people would just walk by. There was a guy who flipped her off at one point.
speaker
We asked them, do you know what is democracy, do you have it in China? The democracy is not for sale. You can’t buy it. Do you know what is democracy? You have no idea.
michael barbaro
So Chinese mainlanders are hostile to that message.
javier hernandez
They are hostile. And that’s because, in large part, of this amazingly intense propaganda machine that exists in the mainland.
archived recording 1
[CHINESE PROPAGANDA]
javier hernandez
You know, one thing that’s caught on in the mainland is this idea that the protests are the work of America, that the C.I.A. is backing them, that it’s illegitimate, that America is just trying to meddle in China’s affairs and embarrass China. And a lot of people buy that. For a lot of them, they can’t really believe that people would come out to protest just out of their own interests. They believe that there must be somebody pushing them to do this, and that they are just pawns in this broader geopolitical war. [MUSIC]
michael barbaro
So Javier, why would that be a plausible story to the people in China, this idea that the U.S. is somehow behind what’s happening in Hong Kong?
javier hernandez
Well, I live in Beijing. And so there’s been this surge over the past year in anti-American propaganda, this attempt to pin all of China’s problems on the United States. Every time I’m in a taxi and news about America comes up on the radio, inevitably the driver will turn back to me and ask, why is America trying to hold China back? Why is America trying to stop China’s rise?
archived recording 1
[CHINESE PROPAGANDA]
javier hernandez
And a large part of that is the trade war that has broken out between the Trump administration and China. When I’m out and about talking to people, all they can say is, why now? Why would America try to do this? We’re in our moment, our greatest moment. China has come out of poverty. China is building its influence around the world. Why would America try to undermine that right now? It must be because America thinks that it’s losing its status as a superpower, and it’s just angry about that.
michael barbaro
So in the middle of this trade war, in the middle of all this propaganda, the fact that this protest erupts in Hong Kong, if you’re in mainland China, it all adds up to a sinister plot by the U.S. to undermine China’s rise.
javier hernandez
It all makes sense if you’re a mainlander. It’s this sense that America has led revolutions in other places, and now it’s China’s turn, that now it’s using Hong Kong to undermine China. And who knows what else. Maybe it’s plotting some kind of revolution. There’s really this I would almost call it a national campaign to drive up patriotism, and specifically to defend Hong Kong against what they see as this foreign threat.
michael barbaro
And did you see evidence in the airport that this is working?
javier hernandez
I did.
speaker
Hello.
javier hernandez
Hi. I was here yesterday, and
javier hernandez
I was trying to reclaim a bag that I had checked before all this chaos broke out.
javier hernandez
O.K. Where do I go?
speaker
[INAUDIBLE]
javier hernandez
And so I went to the airline desk, and of course there were dozens and dozens of mainlanders who were also heading back to Beijing. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] And so we got to chatting a little bit, and these two friends from Sichuan province started to talk to me about how they saw the protests. [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] And they felt like nothing like this could ever happen in China. Hong Kong was unruly, and it must be some foreign force that had tried to bring this against China as a way to destabilize the country. And so you really hear, just talking to mainlanders, they almost pull these points out from the exact same places. They speak in the same terms about foreign influence and hostile foreign forces. And it’s kind of the same message that shows the effectiveness, really, of the Chinese propaganda machine. And the goal is really to just create doubts about information. What can be trusted and what can’t, what’s real and what’s not.
michael barbaro
But beyond what’s happening here with Hong Kong, it sounds like the people of China may really accept the idea that democracy is not a better system than the one that they have in the mainland.
javier hernandez
That’s right. There is enormous pride in China’s system, this sense that what the Communist Party has done has ensured stability and prosperity for so many Chinese. And so they’re very reluctant to see or really engage with any other kind of system, like democracy. For president Xi Jinping, he really believes in this, too. I feel that he really doubts this idea that, if you give more power, more voice to the people, that it will result in helping society. He thinks it could turn into chaos, people turn on each other. And he’s a guy who has spoken about the Soviet Union’s collapse. And that’s something that he, I think, keeps very front and center in his mind, this sense that the Soviet Union did not do enough to ensure ideological conformity. And he sees that as the root cause of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and he’s going to make sure that that doesn’t happen in China. And he sees Hong Kong as perhaps a first step toward that unraveling.
michael barbaro
So viewed from that perspective, it’s in the best interest of not just mainland China, but of Hong Kong to get these protests under control.
javier hernandez
Right. In the party’s view, it’s now time for national unity, not to be undermining China’s rise and speaking against the Communist Party. [COMMOTION] Inside the airport, the two camps really I think aren’t hearing each other anymore. [CLAPPING AND SHOUTING] There’s this sense that they’re speaking past each other. [COMMOTION] The protesters on the one side calling for democracy, the mainlanders coming from this propaganda perspective of thinking this is a conspiracy. And it’s this symbol of these two different Chinas, and a sense of the irreconcilable differences. [COMMOTION] And nobody seems to be willing to give an inch to move any closer to each other.
michael barbaro
Because how can you when it’s a battle over democracy versus authoritarian communism? Essentially, those are irreconcilable.
javier hernandez
Right. And it goes back to Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997. There was a sense that this was going to be a grand political experiment, that maybe there was a way to blend autocracy with these civil liberties. But I think what a lot of people are now thinking is maybe we were wrong. Maybe there’s not really a happy middle ground here. Maybe there is no way to compromise.
michael barbaro
So with a divide that vast, where do you think that this goes from here, Javier?
javier hernandez
Well, there’s some speculation that it could get a lot worse, that Beijing would take military steps to control the protests. But many experts say that’s still very unlikely. They feel that Beijing wouldn’t want that kind of a reputational hit. They don’t want another Tiananmen Square incident, where the world’s decrying them for taking strong action against protesters. But there are a lot of other tools that China could use, things like punishing companies that work in the mainland. And the goal here is really to put these companies in the crosshairs.
michael barbaro
And is that a powerful enough lever, do you think, to make a difference?
javier hernandez
Well, already we’re seeing it’s making a difference.
archived recording 1
A suspension [INAUDIBLE] who joined illegal protests begins today.
javier hernandez
The Chinese government this week forced Cathay Pacific, this iconic Hong Kong airline, to prevent staffers or any employees who support or participate in these protests from doing any work related to flights to mainland China.
archived recording 2
Shares in the firm slumped over 4 percent Monday, that after Beijing demanded that Cathay punish staff who attended the protests. The firm moved fast to comply.
javier hernandez
And I think what they’re trying to do now is to lean on these members of the Hong Kong business community who share the value that’s most important to the Communist Party, which is that economic prosperity must come above all else. They’re hoping to set off this broader sense of fear among the business community in Hong Kong, and to show them and remind them that, if they want any access to the Chinese market, if they want to do any business in China, they’re going to have to get their employees in line.
michael barbaro
That’s kind of fascinating because, in some ways, that’s a very capitalist approach to this crisis of protests for democracy.
javier hernandez
Yeah. In many ways, China is using the tools of capitalism now, and hoping that people will think about the market and not think about ideals. And for a country that’s run by the Communist Party, it represents this remarkable shift that we’ve seen play out over decades. China cares more about money now than, in some ways, it cares about its own original ideals, the Communist ideals that were behind the People’s Republic when it was founded. [MUSIC]
michael barbaro
Javier, thank you very much.
javier hernandez
Thank you, Michael.
javier hernandez
Many of the protesters told me that they worry that Beijing might escalate its crackdown. But they also said, so what? They have nothing to lose. They’re ready to fight this fight. And so for a lot of them, I think they’re just prepared for a battle that may stretch on for months or even years.
michael barbaro
On Wednesday night, the airport protests turned violent, as demonstrators attacked a man they accused of being a mainland Chinese police officer impersonating a protester. [COMMOTION] And later took a baton from another police officer and began to beat him with it. The protesters eventually retreated after the officer pulled out his gun. [INDISTINCT SHOUTING] A few hours later, President Trump said on Twitter that U.S. intelligence agencies had learned that China was moving troops toward the border with Hong Kong. We’ll be right back. [MUSIC] Here’s what else you need to know today. On Tuesday, the head of the Manhattan correctional center where Jeffrey Epstein died, apparently by suicide, was reassigned, and the two workers in charge of monitoring Epstein were placed on leave. The punishments were announced by the Justice Department after officials found that the jail had violated its own procedures by failing to check on Epstein for several hours and by leaving him alone without a cellmate just days after taking him off suicide watch. And The Times reports that the government of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has been imprisoning and torturing hundreds of soldiers in an attempt to keep the military loyal to his government. The repressive tactics are Maduro’s response to a series of attempted coups and assassinations since 2017, as Venezuela has descended into poverty, protest, and violence. The conduct violates Maduro’s own pledge to end state-sponsored torture in Venezuela, which was widely used by his predecessors. That’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

A spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office, the Chinese government agency that deals with the two cities, denounced the airport violence in a statement on Wednesday, calling it “conduct close to terrorism.”

Image
Later Wednesday night, the police fired tear gas at protesters who demonstrated in the neighborhood of Sham Shui Po.
Later Wednesday night, the police fired tear gas at protesters who demonstrated in the neighborhood of Sham Shui Po.CreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The Hong Kong police arrested five males, ages 17 to 28, on suspicion of unlawful assembly at the airport. Two were also held for allegedly assaulting a police officer and possession of offensive weapons.

Terence Mak, assistant police commissioner, said “some radical protesters” had “harshly attacked some innocent visitors.” He likened the assaults on the two men to torture and added that paramedics were blocked from immediately treating them.

“What did these visitors do to deserve such suffering?” Mr. Mak said.

The Hong Kong Airport Authority said it had obtained an interim injunction to prevent interference with airport operations. It was not clear what immediate effect, if any, the injunction would have on the protests. Similar orders were used to allow workers, under the supervision of police officers and bailiffs, to eventually dismantle protesters’ encampments during the large pro-democracy demonstrations that swept Hong Kong in 2014.

On Wednesday morning, a few dozen protesters remained in the airport, sitting in an area designated for protests. Parts of the arrivals halls were still covered with posters carrying their messages, which have focused in recent days on complaints about the police’s use of force.

“We are not rioters, we just love HK too much,” read one sign.

Reporting was contributed by Elsie Chen, Ezra Cheung, Katherine Li and Javier C. Hernández.

A version of this article appears in print on Aug. 15, 2019, Section A, Page 11 of the New York edition with the headline: Protesters Do Some Soul-Searching After Disorder at Busy Airport. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe