Protesters Return to Hong Kong Airport to Apologize for Flight Chaos

August 14, 2019, 11:43 AM UTC

On Monday and Tuesday, protesters in Hong Kong brought one of the world’s busiest airports to a shuddering halt, grounding nearly 600 flights and costing the local aviation industry an estimated $76 million.

In a statement on Wednesday morning, the Airport Authority announced it had obtained an injunction from a court to “restrain persons from unlawfully and willfully obstructing or interfering with the proper use of Hong Kong International Airport.” A further notice on the airport’s website said that flights had resumed but could be rescheduled.

On Wednesday, protesters, who are still permitted to demonstrate inside the airport but only within a designated area, returned to the scene. Some brought placards apologizing for the disruption and violence caused the day before. One reads, “We were desperate and made imperfect decisions. Please accept our apology.”

What happened?

The nature of the airport protests this week represents an escalation from a three-day sit-in this past weekend. The occupation of hundreds of demonstrators was carried off with little incident and flights in and out continued to operate as normal. But on Sunday demonstrations elsewhere in Hong Kong turned violent as protesters clashed with police.

One young woman was taken to hospital with a severe eye injury—and could be permanently blind—after reportedly being hit in the head by a bean-bag round fired by police. Outraged protesters decided to return to Hong Kong Airport on Monday—many of them wearing “bloodied” eye patches—to protest the police’s use of force.

At 4 p.m Monday, the airport authority cancelled all remaining flights. On Tuesday, after flights resumed, protesters returned to the airport where they used trolleys to barricade the way past security and customs, forced check-in counters to close, and actively restrained passengers trying to get through to flights.

Later in the day, small mobs of protesters twice apprehended individuals they suspected of being Beijing operatives. The men were bound with cable ties and interrogated by a swarm of angry protesters who prevented paramedics from providing care. Both victims were eventually taken away by ambulance. Hu Xijin, the editor of China’s state-run Global Times, later identified one of the men as a Global Times reporter.

The airport authority grounded flights again mid-afternoon, but protesters continued to mill around until after midnight when riot police moved in to disperse them. One officer drew his gun as a group of protesters slammed him against a wall, snatched his baton and began to beat him with it.

What’s the fallout?

According to travel industry analyst ForwardKeys, flight bookings from Asia to Hong Kong fell 20% in the eight weeks to August 9. Following disruption this week, a company spokesperson said ForwardKeys is “not optimistic about reporting a recovery in the near future.”

Hong Kong’s economy is facing a whirlwind of downward pressure, including the protests as well as the U.S.-China trade war. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index, which monitors the city’s largest companies, has fallen 11% since the start of the month and on Monday reached its lowest level since January. The forecast decline in tourism will further depress retail sales, which fell 6.7% in July.

“This economic downturn is very fast, and some people have described it as coming like a tsunami,” Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Friday, warning that the economic fallout from the protests could be worse than Hong Kong experienced during the SARS epidemic of 2003 or the global financial crisis. But Lam is likely trying to put pressure on the protesters to quit.

“There was a negative quarterly growth in the second quarter and I’m forecasting another in the third quarter, so that’s technically a recession,” says Tommy Wu, senior economist at Oxford Economics in Hong Kong. “In that sense, yes, we haven’t seen a technical recession since the [global financial crisis], but the magnitude is much shallower,” Wu says, noting the quarterly contraction is only around 0.6%.

A greater risk for Hong Kong is whether Beijing’s response to the protests deters international business from investing in Hong Kong. Wednesday morning China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office condemned Tuesday night’s protest violence as “near terrorist” behavior. It’s a sudden ratcheting of rhetoric, prompting fears that Beijing is preparing a crackdown on Hong Kong.

If we get to that point then the situation would change forever and Hong Kong would never be Hong Kong as we know it,” says Chinese University economics professor Jimmy Chan. “It wouldn’t be easy to undo that damage, and I think it’s one bridge no one, including the central government in Beijing, wants to cross.”

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