Details

As of Wednesday 14 August, flights have resumed as normal at Hong Kong International Airport. It follows two days of disruption due to demonstrators blockading terminals and subsequent violence between protestors and authorities. Demonstrations began at the airport on Friday 9 August and were initially peaceful, however tensions escalated on the evenings of Monday 12 August and Tuesday 13 August. Flights were grounded and passengers stranded and blocked from departure gates as riot police clashed with protestors. Violence continued elsewhere in the city with police firing tear gas in an attempt to disperse demonstrators who had barricaded roads. Protestors appeared to withdraw when pressed by authorities and re-appear elsewhere, ensuring police were not able to surround them.

According to the CEO of Hong Kong Airport Authority, Fred Lam Tin-Fuk, 1,000 flights were affected after thousands of pro-democracy protestors gathered at the airport, prompting flight delays and cancellations. He said a court order was issued on Wednesday, restricting people from accessing the airport to ensure its safe operation. The violence reached its peak on Tuesday evening, when riot police officers entered the front doors of the airport and attempted to tackle demonstrators. Footage taken by witnesses released online showed police clashing with individuals. One could be seen restraining a female protestor and was then attacked by a larger group, prompting him to draw his pistol, however no shots were fired. Some protestors also reportedly tied up and beat two men from mainland China, one who was identified as a reporter for the nationalistic Chinese newspaper, the Global Times.

Police condemned the protestors and five people were reportedly detained. The total number of people arrested since the protests began is believed to be around 600. The violence at the airport received widespread coverage in China’s state media, which criticised the demonstrations. On Monday, a Chinese spokesperson stated that the protests showed “signs of terrorism” and Hong Kong’s government have called the on-going protests “unlawful assemblies”. The conflict took place on the tenth consecutive weekend of violence in Hong Kong. There has been widespread criticism of the movement and the further damage it has inflicted on the Hong Kong economy. The airport contributes over five per cent to Hong Kong’s GDP, Geoffrey Thomas, editor-in-chief of AirlineRatings.com has stated that the flight delays and disruptions will cost “tens of millions of dollars”. He also claims that in the coming months, travellers are likely to cancel and rebook flights that avoid Hong Kong as a travel hub.

Protests initially began after a bill was introduced in April 2019 that would allow people accused of crimes against mainland China to be extradited. Critics claimed that this would put journalists and activists at risk of an unfair trial or violent treatment. Protestors have argued that the extradition bill would also enable China to exercise greater control over Hong Kong. The city is currently a semi-autonomous region, or Special Administrative Region (SAR). Most citizens of Hong Kong wish to retain their relative autonomy and do not welcome increased influence of mainland China.

Following weeks of protest, Beijing-backed leader of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, confirmed that the bill would be suspended, however, demonstrations have continued throughout the city. Protestors have demanded the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, as well as amnesty for all arrested protestors and an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, among other requests. Although many of the demonstrations have been peaceful, violence has also been widespread. As of Wednesday, there have been reports of armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles belonging to China’s paramilitary People’s Armed Police located along areas of the border of Hong Kong. There is an extant threat of escalating violence between demonstrators and authorities. Protestors have evacuated the airport, however individuals have continued to gather in other areas of the city, such as the residential Sham Shui Po area.

Analyst Comment

Anti-government protestors have used the cover of religious festivals and gatherings to congregate without police permission. Activists have continued to block roads and shone lasers in order to deter facial recognition technology. Groups appear to be using the Telegram messaging application to send messages that are heavily- encrypted in order to arrange demonstrations. The movement has adopted tactics and procedures that colloquially make reference to the ‘be like water’ philosophy espoused by Bruce Lee, allowing them to rapidly organise and gather without knowledge of the authorities, quickly assembling and dispersing in order to evade being tracked. The leaderless framework of the movement use of messaging apps such as Telegram has allowed protestors to stay ahead of police, with the tactic intended to avoid open confrontation However, there have been reports of undercover police being detected by protestors amongst the groups. An individual who was suspected of being a spy was apprehended by demonstrators and beaten until unconscious in the recent wave of violence.

The Hong Kong police have been tasked with quelling the demonstrations, with a previous police commander even being brought out of retirement, however it is unclear whether this will be viable without further Chinese intervention. The lack of a formal structure of the movement engenders a confusion of strategy, as demonstrated in the conflicting violent and non-violent tactics undertaken by those at the airport demonstrations. Many protestors have apologised for the disruption and violence that occurred, however others have expressed disagreement and maintained that their violence was justified and necessary. These hard-line elements may be seeking to prolong protests in a bid to draw Chinese ire and therefore escalate the situation and enforce change. As protests continue it is uncertain what action may be taken by authorities or indeed the anti-government movement in order to prevent escalating violence occurring.

As the demonstrations continue, the response of both Hong Kongers and China will be key to any outcome. Whilst reporting from Western news agencies has focussed on attempts by demonstrators to instigate reform in the semi-autonomous region, sentiment is key to the freedom of movement that the protestors enjoy. Whilst polling is unavailable, the desire to reform the governance of Hong Kong is not shared by all Hong Kongers, and the extent to which the protests are supported is likely to diminish the longer disruption continues. Equally, the response from China is likely to be driven by time. Whilst the authorities in China have hitherto allowed the Hong Kong security forces to retain control of the situation; if the demonstrations continue at the pace they are, then this acquiescence is likely to be tested. Reports that Chinese forces have amassed in Shenzhen, near the Hong Kong border, are assessed to be an attempt by China to remind both protestors and the Hong Kong authorities that they are capable of responding should the situation not be contained. The Chinese Communist party have a clear plan for the finalisation of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control in 2047, and this is likely to restrain their use of military force. As such, the forces amassed in Shenzhen are reported to be armed police units as opposed to elements of the People’s Liberation Army. Any response by China will therefore be measured, and the use of forces from outside Hong Kong a last, though certainly available, resort.

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