Anti-government protesters forced the Hong Kong airport to suspend flights for the second consecutive day Tuesday, escalating the standoff with local officials and raising the specter of Chinese intervention. The pro-democracy protests, which started in response to a proposed law that would essentially end the region’s remaining political autonomy from Beijing, are now in their 10th week. The demonstrations have provoked a forceful and at times violent response from police. Five days ago, the protesters moved their demonstration to the Hong Kong airport, one of the world’s busiest, causing travel to be suspended for the first time on Monday. Mass cancellations late Monday created chaos at the airport, but flights reportedly had begun returning to normal around the demonstrators dressed in all black seated in the terminal before the protests again disrupted flights.
“By early evening, with protesters using luggage carts as barricades and blocking departing passengers, airport authorities said they were ‘temporarily suspending’ check-in at both terminals,” the Washington Post reported. “Arguments erupted between passengers and protesters, with some passengers crying and saying they just wanted to get home. … Meanwhile, some protesters chanted ‘return the eye’—a reference to an incident Sunday night when a young woman was shot in the eye, possibly by a bean bag round, when police clashed with protesters.”
During a press conference Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the city was coming up “to the brink of no return” and risked being “pushed into an abyss.” Lam’s comments come as threats from Beijing become less and less veiled. China’s rhetoric regarding the protests has gotten more menacing, and on Tuesday state media aired a video of Chinese troops amassing on the border of Hong Kong.
Chinese intervention in the semiautonomous region that was under British rule until 1997 is expected to exact a high political cost for Beijing, and experts say mainland China is likely not quite ready to enter Hong Kong to forcibly end the protests, but it appears to be getting closer. The Chinese government’s approach so far has been to simultaneously support the police response to the protests with the aim of ending them while also working to discredit the protesters, labeling them as a violent mob, separatists, criminals, and ultimately terrorists. The protests began in June over an extradition bill that would have allowed Beijing to request the extradition of citizens of Hong Kong to Beijing for trial.