Leaders of one of Asia’s most prominent financial centres warned Friday of increasingly tough economic circumstances as demonstrators gathered at Hong Kong airport with signs welcoming visitors to “a city run by police and gangsters.”
Protesters have brought “huge damage to the economy and to the daily life of the people,” Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said, with business representatives reporting that a majority of the city’s retailers posted losses in June and July. Millions of people have taken to the streets in a series of protests, exacting a toll that goes beyond that of the financial crisis and the outbreak of SARS, Ms. Lam said, likening the speed and severity of the economic damage to a “tsunami.”
The dark message followed a week of arrests in Hong Kong and sharp warnings from China, where video of military exercises suggested a willingness to respond with force to the protests while a high-ranking official intoned against a “colour revolution” in Hong Kong. On Friday, in another sign of a toughening response, Chinese aviation authorities ordered airline Cathay Pacific to bar staff who had taken part in protests from working on flights through mainland airspace.
Protesters in the city have made a series of demands, including an investigation into police conduct and greater electoral rights.
Their latest demonstration clogged Hong Kong’s busy airport arrivals hall Friday, as activists who have studied tactics used in France and Ukraine prepared for a weekend of renewed clashes with police, who cited the potential for violence in rejecting applications for a handful of protests.
“More and more people who were not that active and hardcore before are now at the front lines with full gear,” said Baggio Leung, a Hong Kong activist and politician. His own mother has become conversant in various models of gas mask filters.
On Friday night, Hong Kong demonstrators used a protest innovation of their own: setting fire to large quantities of Joss paper – the spirit money used in Chinese rituals of ancestor veneration – as a barrier to frustrate police clearance attempts. “Fire is the only way that can stop them from pushing so fast,” Mr. Leung said.
Unrest in the city has marked the most visible challenge to Chinese rule under President Xi Jinping, and the drumbeat of warnings in recent days – including a plea for calm Friday from the city’s wealthy property developers – has suggested a more concerted effort to restore order is under way.
It’s unclear how successful that has been. Only a few dozen people attended the Joss paper protest, their faces lit by a handful of fires. The small numbers contrasted sharply with the millions who marched in protest two months ago.
At the city’s airport, however, a crowd began what is expected to be a three-day protest at the arrivals area, handing out pamphlets to travellers that said: “You’ve arrived in a broken, torn-apart city,” but “we’re fighting to put the broken pieces back together.” On Friday, demonstrators unfurled a banner demanding, “Revolution Now Liberate HK.”
“Of course some of us are scared,” said Matthew Lau, 20, a university student who flew home from Australia to demonstrate. “But it’s the fact that so many people are willing to fight for Hong Kong – to come out and voice their opinions – that gives us hope.” Police have arrested 592 people since June 9, including dozens on rioting charges that carry a maximum prison term of 10 years.
On Wednesday, Zhang Xiaoming, one of the top Chinese officials with oversight over Hong Kong, called the ongoing rallies, some of which have turned violent, the “most severe situation” since the city’s handover to China in 1997. He said Beijing’s top priority is to ”end the chaos and restore order.”
Some analysts believe the hardening approach signals the beginning of the end for the protests.
Others have drawn hope from the threats. Signs of concern in Beijing mean “the central government is now looking at us and they are thinking about how to deal with us. Which means our movement is gaining currency,” said Jeff, 18, who declined to provide a surname because he fears retribution from authorities for his presence at the airport protest.
Activists in the city have traditionally eschewed violence, determined to mount peaceful challenges to what they call the creeping influence of Beijing in a city that was promised a high degree of autonomy.
But the past two months have been marked by much more forceful protest. Police accuse demonstrators of arson, vandalism and hurling dangerous objects at officers, who have responded with fusillades of tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper balls in scenes that have given parts of Hong Kong the look of a conflict zone.
Such tactics and the large numbers of arrests ”will escalate the hardcore demonstrators’ anger in the short term, but if sustained, will turn the tide in the police’s favour,” said Steve Vickers, a former head of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau who now runs a political- and corporate-risk consultancy.
The Hong Kong government, for its part, appears “to believe that intemperance and increasing levels of ugly violence by activists will result in a change of public mood and that this will, in turn, move public support against the movement,” he said.
That strategy is showing signs of success, he believes. “Ordinary working-class people, they have had enough.”
People initially took to the streets in June to demand the cancellation of an extradition law that raised fears Hong Kong citizens could face justice in Chinese courts. That law has now been shelved – although not withdrawn – but protests have since widened to include much broader demands for political autonomy in the Chinese city.
Fears of angering Chinese authorities have been set aside as protesters embrace revolutionary slogans.
“It is no longer sensible to try to avoid crossing the so-called red line set by Beijing,” said Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy member of the city’s legislative council.
“People are determined to seize this chance to voice out the fundamental demand of Hong Kong people, which is that we need a fundamental review of the current governing institutions and the relationship between Hong Kong and China.”
Ms. Lam, however, has dismissed those demands.
“I don’t think we should just sort of make concessions in order to silence the violent protesters,” she said Friday. ”We should do what is right for Hong Kong.” The top priority, she said, is “to stop the violence.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland urged Canadians to use common sense if they travel to Hong Kong, after her department issued a travel advisory warning of the dangers linked to the protests.
"There are protests happening in Hong Kong and there is some violence around those protests. I think it is common sense for Canadians to take great care," Ms. Freeland said Friday at an event in Calgary.
“There are 300,000 Canadians who live in Hong Kong, so I want to assure then and their families that we are very focused on them,” she added without offering any specifics.
With reporting from James Keller.
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