Riot police yesterday fanned out across Hong Kong and thwarted plans by pro-democracy protesters to target the airport, days after the territory’s leader made a surprise concession that was rejected by the movement as too little, too late.
Millions of pro-democracy supporters have taken to Hong Kong’s streets over the past three months in the biggest challenge to China’s rule since the territory’s handover from Britain in 1997.
On Wednesday, pro-Beijing Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) surprised many by announcing that she was scrapping a hugely unpopular extradition law that sparked the widespread and sometimes-violent rallies.
The withdrawal was one of the protesters’ key demands, and both she and Beijing had previously refused to budge on the issue.
Lam, who was not directly elected, but appointed by a Beijing-friendly committee, portrayed the move as a bid to de-escalate tensions and start a dialogue.
However, it has been widely dismissed by protesters as an empty gesture after 14 weeks of clashes with more than 1,100 arrests and many facing lengthy jail sentences.
Online messaging forums used by the largely leaderless movement had called for protesters to “stress test” the airport yesterday afternoon, filling up with suggestions on how to disrupt the road and rail links leading to the terminals.
However, a large deployment of police at key bus, ferry and rail terminals across the territory appeared to deter protesters from arriving en masse.
Some train and bus services to the airport were running a more restricted service while police performed multiple stops and searches, largely against young people.
At the airport, the atmosphere was calm, but travelers had to line up to have bags searched and boarding passes checked before being allowed to enter.
“On the way to the airport, our bus stopped for some sort of searching. The police came into the bus and checked everyone,” said James Reis, a passenger who arrived nine hours ahead of his flight home to Portugal.
Over the past several weeks, the airport — the world’s eighth-busiest — has become a repeated target of pro-democracy protesters as they try to ramp up pressure on Beijing and Hong Kong’s leaders by denting the territory’s reputation as a stable business hub.
However, the tactic is controversial because of the travel misery it causes — and that the target is not the state, but ordinary people.
Last month, hundreds of flights were canceled over two days when huge crowds of protesters staged a sit-in at the airport, with ugly scenes playing out as two men suspected of being Chinese spies were beaten.
Previous protests at the airport had been nondisruptive and peaceful, aimed at enlightening travelers about the movement’s goals.
Since the violent scenes, security has been ramped up around the sprawling hub and access to the terminals has been restricted to those with boarding passes.
Protesters have said that their movement would only end when other key demands are met, such as amnesty for those arrested, an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality and the granting of fully free elections, all of which Lam and Beijing have rejected.
At a peaceful rally on Friday night in the territory’s commercial district, many protesters said that they planned to continue hitting the streets.
“It’s too late now. In these three months, a lot of people have sacrificed themselves and been arrested,” a retiree surnamed Cheng said.
The same night, tear gas was fired at small groups of more hardline protesters who were shining laser pens at a police station in Mongkok, an area that has seen repeated clashes.
Protesters are planning a rally outside the US consulate today.
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