The tenth week of the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong against the Chinese government saw an escalation in violence, with Beijing terming the demonstrator's detainment of two civilians "near terrorism".
China’s condemnation of the pro-democracy protests came as US president Donald Trump urged Beijing to "humanely" resolve the violent stand-off with protesters in the semi-autonomous region. Trump’s statements are on the back of growing concerns that Beijing is considering direct intervention in the crisis.
The protests took a violent turn on Tuesday and Wednesday after clashes between police and protesters, both inside and outside Hong Kong's airport. Wednesday ended with riot officers shooting tear gas at the protesters, indicating that the state’s response to the protests had toughened.
Flights resumed at Hong Kong airport, which is one of the world’s busiest, on Thursday. Thousands of protesters have occupied the airport for days, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of departures. Ten weeks of increasingly violent confrontations between police and protesters have plunged the city into its worst crisis since it reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing called the behaviour at the airport no different from terrorism and said it must be severely punished.
AFP reported that thousands of Chinese military personnel on Thursday waved red flags and paraded at a sports stadium in the city of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong. Dozens of armoured personnel carriers and supply trucks were also parked in the city, the report said.
Chinese state-run media also reported this week that the elements of the People's Armed Police (PAP), which is under the command of the Central Military Commission, were assembling in Shenzhen.
Under the “one country-two systems” arrangement, Hong Kong was guaranteed a high degree of autonomy and human rights after its handover to China, which, the protesters feel, are being eroded.
Trade deal with China is linked to peaceful resolution of political unrest, says Donald Trump
The parade in Shenzhen is in the backdrop of Trump’s indication of linking a possible trade deal with Beijing to a peaceful resolution to the political unrest. Washington has become increasingly alarmed by Chinese security forces gathering near the border with Hong Kong as the protests show no signs of abating and Beijing intensifies its drumbeat of intimidation against a movement pushing for democratic reforms.
"Millions of jobs are being lost in China to other non-Tariffed countries. Thousands of companies are leaving. Of course, China wants to make a deal. Let them work humanely with Hong Kong first!" Trump wrote on Twitter, in the first clear indication that the trade deal could be threatened by how Beijing reacts to the protests.
"I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it," Trump said in a subsequent tweet, suggesting a "personal meeting" with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
China also denied a request for two US Navy warships to visit Hong Kong in the coming weeks, US officials said, as a prominent senator, Ben Cardin, warned the territory could lose its special trade status if Beijing intervenes.
After coming under fire from both sides of the US political spectrum for "shying away from the issue", Trump's tweets on Hong Kong appeared to signal something of a change in his approach to the city. In the past, he has avoided criticising Beijing even as he cited US intelligence reports of Chinese forces moving to the territory's border.
China has portrayed the protests as a foreign-funded attempt to destabilise the motherland rather than a popular revolt against its policies. The protests also come on the heels of a long-drawn trade war between Washington and Beijing, wherein they have imposed tariffs on $360 billion in two-way trade. However, Trump has delayed tariffs on electronic goods from China, giving investors hope for a detente in the trade conflict.
The introduction of Hong Kong as a potential bargaining chip in those talks could produce a further wrinkle.
Protesters apologise for ‘reckless’ violence
After the unprecedented violence at the airport abated, demonstrators held up banners apologising for the “reckless” spate that saw two civilians being targeted. “We’re deeply sorry about what happened yesterday,” read a banner held up by a group of a few dozen demonstrators in the airport arrivals hall on Wednesday morning.
“We were desperate and we made imperfect decisions. Please accept our apologies,” the banner said. In chaotic scenes that would once have been unthinkable for Hong Kong, a peaceful sit-in at the airport turned violent late on Tuesday as protesters confronted and held a man they believed was an undercover Chinese agent.
Busloads of riot police arrived in response, clashing with furious demonstrators before withdrawing once the man was removed, and leaving the terminal briefly in control of activists who then detained a Chinese reporter for a short time.
It was not clear whether the scenes of violence might have eroded the broad support the movement has so far attracted in Hong Kong, a major financial hub. The protests have also hit the city’s faltering economy.
“We promise to reflect and to improve,” protesters said in one message distributed on social media app Telegram. “Sorry we were too reckless ... we are only afraid of losing your support to the whole movement due to our mistake, and that you give up on fighting.”
However, the also showed little sign of relenting in their protests, which began in opposition to a now-suspended bill that would have allowed the extradition of suspects for trial in mainland China, but have swelled into wider calls for democracy.
Hundreds attended a demonstration in the residential area of Sham Shui Po on Wednesday, where police arrived and quickly used tear gas after protesters pointed lasers at the police station.
Activists are also planning another series of mass rallies this weekend in a bid to show their cause still maintains broad public support despite violent scenes during a disruptive occupation of the airport. “All the people here are very scared,” Ann, a 21-year-old teacher, told Reuters at the airport as she carefully took down anti-government posters, folding them for re-use.
“But we are more scared that we do not have our freedoms anymore, and so that is why we continue our protests,” she said. “We feel that our ideas are bulletproof.”
As some groups sent out apologies, messaging forums used to organise protests have filled with calls to support a planned rally on Sunday organised by the Civil Human Rights Front -- a group that advocates non-violence and has previously managed to get colossal crowds out onto the streets.
"An urgent call from the peaceful, the rational and the non-violent: the whole world come out on August 18!" read one popular thread on the Reddit-like LIHKG forum used by protesters.
Blood, debris and signs of the scuffle were scrubbed away from the premises of the airport, and cleaners and protesters themselves removed anti-government posters from the walls, which was designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster.
Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific Airways said a total of 272 departures and arrivals had been cancelled because of the disturbances, affecting more than 55,000 passengers.
China’s aviation regulator demanded last week that Cathay suspend personnel supporting protests in Hong Kong from staffing flights entering its airspace. On Wednesday, the carrier said it had fired two pilots.
Forward Keys, a flight data firm, said the crisis had driven a 4.7 percent fall in long-haul bookings to Hong Kong between June 16 and Aug. 9 compared with the same period last year.
“I think the local events clearly are having a profound impact, probably in ways that we haven’t necessarily clearly articulated yet,” Charles Li, chief executive of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange told reporters on Wednesday.
“This is not helpful,” he said “In a financial centre, trust and confidence are important. In this regard we clearly need to sort this out, we need to work this out.”
With inputs from agencies
Updated Date: Aug 15, 2019 15:23:44 IST