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Hong Kong Airport Resumes Operations After Court Injunction Limiting Protests

Demonstrators sit and lie on the arrival hall floor at Hong Kong International Airport on Wednesday.
Paul Yeung
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Demonstrators sit and lie on the arrival hall floor at Hong Kong International Airport on Wednesday.

Updated at 2:30 p.m. ET

Operations at Hong Kong International Airport appeared to be returning to normal on Wednesday after riot police used batons and pepper spray to break up days of protests there that had brought flights to a standstill.

A few dozen pro-democracy demonstrators remained in the airport's arrival area following the police action late Tuesday and a court order restricting protests to two designated areas in the departure hall, according to the South China Morning Post.

The airport said it had "an interim injunction to restrain persons from unlawfully and willfully obstructing or interfering" with operations.

There were several dozen flight cancellations on Wednesday after the airport — one of the world's busiest — had been forced to effectively shut down on Monday and Tuesday, when protesters poured into the terminal building, blocking check-in and immigration screening.

The airport sit-in that began on Friday follows 10 weeks of protests throughout the city triggered by a proposed law to send some accused of crimes in Hong Kong to mainland China to face justice. The Hong Kong government has backed off the extradition bill, but activists want it completely withdrawn.

Since then, protesters have added old and new grievances, including that Hong Kong's China-appointed chief executive, Carrie Lam, step down and be replaced by a freely elected leader and that police be held accountable for what protesters say has been their heavy-handed approach to dealing with demonstrators.

On Tuesday, Lam said the protesters had caused "panic and chaos" in the city. Within hours, all outbound flights at the airport were canceled and police clad in riot gear moved into the terminal, using pepper spray to disperse protesters who used luggage carts as makeshift barricades. Some of the activists were handcuffed and led away by officers.

Hong Kong police condemned what they said were acts of violence by protesters, who they said "harassed and assaulted a visitor and a journalist."

One of them was a reporter for China's Global Times newspaper and, according to Reuters, protesters believed the other to be a Chinese agent sent to infiltrate the protests. A police spokesman acknowledged that authorities had disguised themselves as protesters as part of a "decoy operation."

Five people were detained by police.

On Wednesday, some of the protesters put up a sign in the airport that offered an apology to tourists for the previous day's disruption. "We were desperate and we made imperfect decisions," the message reads. "Please accept our apology."

Demonstrators hold a sign apologizing to tourists at the Hong Kong International Airport on Wednesday.
Paul Yeung/Bloomberg / Getty Images
Getty Images
Demonstrators hold a sign apologizing to tourists at the Hong Kong International Airport on Wednesday.

Some of the protesters have started to wear eye patches stained with red. It's a reference to a young woman who sustained an eye injury earlier this week at a protest, which has become a major rallying point for the demonstrators. The woman was allegedly hit with a beanbag round fired by police, though police have said there is no proof of that.

Meanwhile in Beijing, China's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office condemned what it called "near-terrorist acts" by protesters at the airport.

Analysts are warning that this could take a toll on the financial center's economy.

"We're definitely expecting to see an economic fallout from this," said Peter Churchouse, the managing director of Portwood Capital.

"Hong Kong has been in a downward trend since around January or February anyway," he said, in light of trade concerns between China and the U.S. and other factors. "But of course, since the protests things have definitely accelerated."

"I don't think we've reached this point yet, but at some point, companies are going to start reassessing whether it's a good idea to base their big regional operations in Hong Kong," said Gabriel Wildau, a senior vice president at Teneo who focuses on political risk analysis in China.

He said companies may start looking to Singapore or other places to base their regional hubs if unrest continues.

In Washington, President Trump weighed in on the protests Tuesday by tweeting: "Our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!"

Trump, who had earlier adopted the Hong Kong government's line on the demonstrations by calling them "riots," described events in Hong Kong as "very tough" and expressed hope that everybody could work "for liberty" without anyone getting hurt or killed.

Hugo Brennan, principal Asia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, said there are indications that "the patience of the mainland authorities is wearing thin."

"Beijing's overwhelming preference is for the Hong Kong authorities to bring about an end to the unrest unaided," he told NPR. "But the deployment of para-military PAP forces to neighbouring Shenzhen is a clear signal that Beijing is prepared to intervene to restore order if necessary."

The State Department is "deeply concerned" about the reports of paramilitary movement, a department spokesperson tells NPR. The spokesperson added that the U.S. "strongly urges Beijing to adhere to its commitments ... to allow Hong Kong to exercise a high degree of autonomy."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: August 13, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the South China Morning Post as The South China Post.
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.
Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.
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