Asia Pacific

China says protesters like 'terrorists'; airport reopens

Reuters, Bloomberg

China’s Hong Kong liaison office said Wednesday that anti-government protesters were no different from “terrorists,” and U.S. President Donald Trump said Chinese troops were moving to the border with Hong Kong and urged calm.

The Beijing-based Hong Kong and Macao Affairs office Wednesday said extremely violent crimes must be severely punished in accordance with the law.

The strongly worded statements by China’s central government follows violent clashes between black-clad protesters and riot police at Hong Kong’s international airport, which had hundreds of flights halted for a second day.

China’s People’s Liberation Army has a garrison in Hong Kong, but the troops have remained in barracks since the protests started in April. However, the PLA garrison has issued a video showing “anti-riot” exercises, and its top brass have warned violence is “absolutely impermissible.”

As Hong Kong’s political crisis deepens, China denied a request for two U.S. Navy warships to visit Hong Kong in the coming weeks, officials said.

The images of riot police clashing with protesters at the airport further dented Hong Kong’s reputation as a stable place to do business during the 11th week of protests against a bill allowing extraditions to China.

The escalating stakes have raised fears that China would mobilize forces to restore order in Hong Kong, a move that could scare away foreign companies and further erode the financial hub’s autonomy.

Trump stoked fears of a Chinese intervention, saying in a tweet that reports from U.S. intelligence agencies show mainland troops massing at the border with Hong Kong. He later told reporters that China is facing a “tough situation” in the city: “I hope nobody gets hurt. I hope nobody gets killed.”

A U.S. State Department official urged China to respect the agreements it made in taking control of Hong Kong from the U.K. and allow the city to “exercise a high degree of autonomy.” The statement — from an official who asked not to be identified — was the most forceful to date from the United States.A few dozen protesters remained at the airport Wednesday while workers scrubbed it clean of blood and debris. Check-in counters reopened to lines of hundreds of weary travelers who had waited overnight for their flights.

Security was stricter than usual, with several entrances closed.

Hong Kong’s Airport Authority said it had obtained an interim court injunction to stop people from obstructing operations and that protesters could only demonstrate in designated areas.

Dicky, a 35-year-old protester at the airport for more than two days, said protesters would obey the injunction.

“We will continue to fight for what we deserve otherwise all of that would have been in vain,” he said, declining to give his full name.

Ten weeks of increasingly violent clashes between police and pro-democracy protesters, angered by a perceived erosion of freedoms, have plunged the Asian financial hub into its worst crisis since it reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office said it strongly condemned the “near-terrorism criminal actions” in Hong Kong, including what it called a violent attack on a mainland journalist and tourist at the airport.

Police condemned violent acts by protesters overnight and said a large group had “harassed and assaulted a visitor and a journalist.” Some protesters believed one of those men was an undercover Chinese agent, while another was confirmed as a reporter from China’s Global Times newspaper.

Five people were detained in the latest disturbances, police said, bringing the number of those arrested since the protests began in June to more than 600.

Flag carrier Cathay Pacific Airways published a half-page advertisement in the Hong Kong Economic Journal pledging its support for the government and calling for the resumption of the rule of law and social order. China’s aviation regulator had demanded last week that Cathay suspend personnel who supported protests in Hong Kong from staffing flights into its airspace. The carrier later suspended two pilots.

Property developers Henderson Land Development, Cheung Kong Holdings and Sun Hung Kai Holdings also took out newspaper advertisement in support of the government on Wednesday.

Forward Keys, a flight data company, said the crisis had deterred people from making travel plans to the city, citing 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.

Statements of apology from protesters were displayed in the airport Wednesday, promising to allow passengers to depart, to assist medical staff to carry out their duties and not to hinder the work of the press.

“We are not afraid of facing the issues directly … only afraid of losing your support to the whole movement due to our mistake, and that you give up on fighting.”

The protests 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.

Embattled Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has said the city has been pushed into a state of “panic and chaos.”

Demonstrators say they are fighting the erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement that enshrined some autonomy for Hong Kong when it returned to China in 1997.

The protests represent one of the biggest challenges for Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

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