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How escalating tensions in Hong Kong have brought one of the world's busiest airports to a standstill

Tensions have been simmering for months in Hong Kong, sparked by a proposed extradition bill with China.

Protesters used luggage trolleys to block the walkway to the departure gates yesterday.
Protesters used luggage trolleys to block the walkway to the departure gates yesterday.
Image: Vincent Yu/PA Images

YESTERDAY SAW PRO-democracy protesters entering Hong Kong International Airport, causing widespread disruption to flights for a second day. 

Police moved in and clashed with protesters inside the terminal, using pepper spray to beat back the demonstrators in the latest escalation amid tensions that have been steadily rising all summer. 

Anti-government protesters have been hitting the streets of Hong Kong regularly in recent months, but the disruption to the world’s eighth busiest airport has represented a considerable escalation.

Here’s what’s been happening.

What’s this all over then?

Hong Kong is part of China but it is a semi-autonomous region, meaning it has its own administration and government. This is because of the arrangements made to return control of Hong Kong back from the British Empire in 1997. 

There are a number of significant differences between China and Hong Kong, namely its civil service, a free press and other democratic systems.

Since reunification began, there have been tensions on both sides, with rising concerns that Beijing is attempting to regain full control over the region. 

As it stands, Hong Kong can only extradite people to countries with which it has extradition agreements and all other requests, including those from China, are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. 

Hong Kong Extradition Law A policemen falls after scuffled with protesters during a demonstration in June. Source: Kin Cheung/PA Images

There is no formal arrangement for extraditions between China and Hong Kong. 

However, a proposed extradition bill would allow Chinese authorities to take people it deems to be criminals into custody in mainland China.

Critics say the new legislation would damage the independence afforded under Hong Kong’s own judicial system.

And fears are mounting that as this law offers more power to China, anyone seen dissenting or disagreeing with the Chinese government could be detained and brought to the mainland.

These fears have spilled over onto the streets with protesters clashing with police on a now-regular basis in recent times. 

Protest

The first major protest saw an estimated one million people on the streets of Hong Kong at the start of June.

Demonstrations have since been a regular occurrence featuring unprecedented turnouts and frequent clashes with authorities. 

City leader – who is seen as an ally to Beijing – Carrie Lam has so far refused to back down other than agreeing to suspend the extradition bill for the time being. The refusal to withdraw the bill entirely has seen protests continue. 

There have also been several flashpoints in the past two months. In late July, pro-democracy protesters opposed to the extradition bill were assaulted by suspected triad gangsters in an attack that left dozens wounded

A week later, riot police fired tear gas at protesters who defied a ban on marching, as part of a wider crackdown.

And, this week, the protests have escalated with thousands of demonstrators packing into Hong Kong International Airport, forcing the cancellation of all flights on Monday and hundreds more yesterday

Hong Kong Protests Airport security personnel look as protesters using luggage trolleys to block the departure gates. Source: Vincent Thian/PA Images

In an emotional press conference yesterday, Carrie Lam warned of dangerous consequences if escalating violence is not curbed.

“Violence… will push Hong Kong down a path of no return,” she said.

Lam, who faced fierce questioning from local reporters and at one point appeared to be on the verge of tears, appealed for calm.

CHINA-HONG KONG-CARRIE LAM-APPEAL-STOP VIOLENCE (CN) Chief executive Carrie Lam Source: Liu Siu Wai/Xinhua/PA Images

“Take a minute to think, look at our city, our home, do you all really want to see it pushed into an abyss?” Lam said, although she again refused to make any concessions to the protesters.

Rhetoric

The protesters have a number of demands. Firstly, they want Lam to resign. They also want the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, the release of protesters who’ve been arrested, an independent inquiry into the actions of police and universal suffrage – or voting rights.

Hong Kong Protests A protester shows a placard to stranded travelers during a demonstration at the airport. Source: Kin Cheung/PA Images

The street protests provoked violent clashes with police, but the disruption now taking place at airports has provoked a significant rise in tensions. 

Yesterday, riot police attempted to intervene to try to disperse protesters provoking yet further clashes. 

Scuffles broke out between protesters and travellers who pleaded to be allowed past. 

And late in the evening a small group of riot police briefly used pepper spray to beat back protesters outside the airport as the officers tried to escort a man who was being taken away in an ambulance.

The injured man had earlier been surrounded for more than two hours inside the airport by protesters who were convinced he was an undercover police officer.

During clashes on Sunday, officers disguised themselves as protesters to make arrests, a move which has since sent paranoia soaring about potential infiltrators.

As the actions of protesters have escalated in recent days, so too has the rhetoric from China.

Authorities in Beijing on Monday slammed violent protesters who threw petrol bombs at police officers, linking them to “terrorism”.

Yesterday, state media upped the ante, calling protesters “mobsters”, warning they must never be appeased, raising the spectre of mainland security forces intervening.

World powers had been relatively quiet on the situation up until recently, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau saying this week that China should be “very careful” in how it responds to the protesters and urged it to heed their “legitimate” demands.

The UN’s rights chief has also voiced concern over police force used against protesters, and called for an impartial probe.

Against the wider backstop of a tit-for-tat trade dispute with China, US President Donald Trump has urged “all sides” to avoid violence in Hong Kong. 

The former governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten told BBC Radio 4 yesterday that Chinese intervention in the region would be ”catastrophe”. 

“I think there is a degree of frustration and anger at the government refusing to give any sensible ground at all, which probably provokes more violence,” Patten said, the last British governor of the region. 

He warned against further ratcheting up of tensions, saying it was a “counterproductive thing for the Chinese government to do to give the impression that unless this stops quickly, they will have to consider other methods”.

Hong Kong is now “close to the abyss”, Patten said.

With reporting from Conor McCrave, AFP

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Sean Murray

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