One of the world’s busiest airports canceled all flights after thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators crowded into Hong Kong’s main terminal Monday, while the central government in Beijing issued an ominous characterization of the protest movement as something approaching “terrorism.”
The extreme action by the largely leaderless movement seemed calculated to prompt a stern response from Beijing, and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s administration responded within hours.
No new violence was reported by Monday evening, although the city remained on edge after more than two months of near-daily and increasingly bloody confrontations between protesters and police.
Beijing tends toward a broad definition of terrorism, including in it nonviolent protests of government policies on the environment or in minority regions such as Xinjiang and Tibet. Such a designation adds to the regime’s descriptions of protesters as clowns, criminals and traitors intent on overthrowing Chinese rule in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong International Airport said in a statement the demonstration “seriously disrupted” airport operations. Only flights that had already started boarding or those cleared for landing were allowed to use runways at the airport.
“All other flights have been canceled for the rest of today,” the airport statement said. It later said flights would resume at 6 a.m. Tuesday (2200 GMT, 6 p.m. EDT Monday).
Joydeep Chakravarti, a software engineer whose connecting flight to San Francisco was canceled during a layover in Hong Kong, expressed frustration that he was told to leave the airport when he wanted to stay inside the terminal.
“I don’t know what’s out there, so I don’t want to leave. I didn’t make any plans for Hong Kong,” said Chakravarti, who had a carry-on bag with laptop, charger and an extra shirt while the rest of his luggage already was checked in on his Singapore Airlines flight.
A massive traffic jam soon formed on the highway leading back to Hong Kong’s city center. Some protesters were seen walking toward the airport amid the stifling heat.
The demonstrations that have drawn more than 1 million people at times call for democratic reforms and an independent inquiry into police conduct, with both protesters and police adopting ever-more extreme tactics.
In Beijing, the Cabinet’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office issued a statement saying the situation in Hong Kong was “beginning to show the sprouts of terrorism” and constituted an “existential threat” to the population.
“One must take resolute action toward this violent criminality, showing no leniency or mercy,” said the statement, attributed to spokesman Yang Guang. “Hong Kong has reached an inflection point where all those who are concerned about Hong Kong’s future must say ‘no,’ to law breakers and ‘no’ to those engaged in violence.”
The chief executive of Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways said there would be “disciplinary consequences” for employees involved in “illegal protests,” as the airline joined businesses that have apologized to China in recent days over political flaps. Rupert Hogg warned in an internal memo that the company has a “zero tolerance approach to illegal activities,” apparently referring to unapproved protests.
Companies from luxury fashion brands to bubble tea shops are under pressure to distance themselves from protesters and declare their support for the ruling Communist Party’s position on Hong Kong. China had said it would bar any airline employees found to have taken part in demonstrations.
Earlier Monday, Hong Kong police showed off water cannons that could be deployed, a development that Amnesty International has warned could lead to serious injuries if misused in the densely populated city.