Asia Pacific / Politics

As protesters blockade Hong Kong airport again, Lam warns of 'path of no return'

Some travelers voice support for protests

AFP-JIJI, Reuters

Violence during protests in Hong Kong will push the city towards a future from which there can be no return, the city’s leader Carrie Lam said Tuesday.

“Violence, no matter if it’s using violence or condoning violence, will push Hong Kong down a path of no return, will plunge Hong Kong society into a very worrying and dangerous situation,” Lam said during a testy press conference. “The situation in Hong Kong in the past week has made me very worried that we have reached this dangerous situation.”

Lam faced combative questioning from reporters who repeatedly interrupted her as she defended the conduct of the city’s police after a weekend of often violent confrontations between them and protesters.

She said police faced “extremely difficult circumstances” and were bound by “rigid and stringent guidelines on the appropriate use of force.”

The 10-week crisis has seen millions of people take to Hong Kong’s streets in the biggest challenge to Chinese rule of the semi-autonomous city since its 1997 handover from Britain. Lam dodged a question on whether she had the power to end the crisis by granting one of the key demands of the protesters — to fully withdraw a now-suspended bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China.

Pressed on whether her hands were tied by Beijing on the issue, she demurred, insisting the question had been answered in the past.

“I again ask everyone to put aside your differences and calm down.”

“Take a minute to think, look at our city, our home, do you all really want to see it pushed into an abyss?” Lam added, becoming emotional.

The tense session dissolved into confrontation when some journalists abandoned questioning in favor of commentary.

“You blame your own political misjudgement on others, and refuse to acknowledge your mistakes,” one said. “When will you accept political responsibility to end citizens’ fear? … When will you be willing to step down? When will you tell the police to stop?” a reporter from Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK asked. Before Lam could respond, the reporter added an admonition: “You asked me in the past to take my job seriously, so please answer me seriously as well.”

Also Tuesday, hundreds of pro-democracy protesters staged a new rally at Hong Kong International Airport, a day after a massive demonstration there triggered a shutdown at the busy travel hub. Only a handful of protesters stayed through the night, and flights resumed at the airport early in the morning, although several hundred flights remained canceled. But by afternoon, several hundred demonstrators had returned, responding to a call for a new rally.

Some travelers facing delays or canceled flights nevertheless voiced support for the demonstrators.

“It may affect me, but I still know what they are doing and I support them so it doesn’t  matter, said 27-year-old advertising worker Mag Mak, whose flight back home to Hong Kong from Dubai was delayed by five hours. “I think the government is so rubbish and they don’t have any response to the protesters,” she added. Frank Filser, 53, was struggling to reschedule a flight back to Germany to visit his father, who has terminal cancer. But he sympathised with the protesters despite the disruption. “They fight for Hong Kong, and that’s their view,” he said. “Anytime I can go back to Germany, but what about the people who grew up here? This is their home.” Real estate worker Tibor, a long-term foreign resident of Hong Kong, was waiting at the terminal for a rescheduled flight after his journey on Monday was cancelled. He said he understood the protests because “it’s really frustrating to live in a society where your government is not really having a dialogue with their own people”.

Separately on Tuesday, Hong Kong flag carrier Cathay Pacific Airways said it had suspended a pilot for misuse of company information, and had also commenced internal disciplinary proceedings. The pilot worked aboard flight CX216 on Monday, the carrier said. The airline did not provide further details, but the Global Times, published by the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, reported earlier on Tuesday that an anonymous message was posted online encouraging protesters to keep protesting at the Hong Kong airport and was accompanied by a picture of a cockpit. The picture, which was also carried by other Chinese media, showed a cockpit screen that belonged to flight CX216, which was flying out of Manchester to Hong Kong. Cathay got caught in the tussle between Beijing and pro-democracy groups on Friday after China’s civil aviation regulator demanded the airline suspend personnel who engaged in or supported illegal protests in Hong Kong from staffing flights into its airspace. If suspended a pilot arrested during anti-government protests and fired two airport employees, citing misconduct. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten, on Tuesday cautioned that if China intervened in Hong Kong it would be a catastrophe and that Chinese President Xi Jinping should see the wisdom of trying to bring people together. Patten said it was counterproductive of the Chinese to warn of “other methods” if the protests did not stop. “That would be a catastrophe for China and of course for Hong Kong,” Patten told BBC radio. “Since President Xi has been in office, there’s been a crackdown on dissent and dissidents everywhere, the party has been in control of everything.” Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with a guarantee that under a ‘one country, two systems’ mode of governance, the city would retain a high degree of autonomy, an independent judiciary and freedoms not allowed in mainland China. The protests have presented Xi with one of his biggest challenges yet relating to the territory. Patten said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson should ask U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, who is in London this week, to get Washington to agree that it would be a “catastrophe” if China intervenes in Hong Kong. “I very much hope that even after 10 weeks of this going on, the government and President Xi will see the sense in establishing a way of actually bringing people together,” Patten said.

Beijing said Monday the protests had begun to show “sprouts of terrorism.” “There is a degree of frustration and anger at the government refusing to give any sensible ground at all which probably provokes more violence,” Patten said. “I can’t believe that any rational person in Carrie Lam’s position would actually argue the case against a commission of inquiry,” he added. “What’s clearly needed is a process of reconciliation. It’s the only way I think you’ll put a cap on this and get back to peace and stability in Hong Kong.”