The protest movement has enjoyed wide support across Hong Kong society but has become steadily radicalized and fractured, and the Chinese government has sharply ramped up a propaganda effort in state media and on social networks to discredit and deflate it.
Hong Kong’s airport ground to a near-halt for a second day Tuesday when protesters assailing perceived police brutality and government indifference occupied departure halls, sparking tense but largely peaceful confrontations with frustrated passengers, many of them stranded.
The mood turned darker by nightfall when protesters seized two men — one a reporter for Chinese state media, another they claimed to be a Chinese government agent — and clashed with police and paramedics who tried to evacuate the pair. At one point, protesters surrounded and kicked a police van, sparking hand-to-hand clashes with riot police, who fired pepper spray near the departure terminal.
The scenes, unfolding under the glare of the media in what is normally one of the world’s busiest airports, provided ample ammunition for a Chinese government that has dismissed the outpouring of anger toward the local government and police in Hong Kong as a “color revolution” and a U.S.-backed “terrorist” scheme instigated by a handful of radicals.
On Wednesday, police warned that protesters arrested during the terminal fracas could face life in prison.
Seven men, ages 17 to 28, were detained, five charged with unlawful assembly and two with assault on police officers and possession of offensive weapons, said Mak Chin-Ho, assistant police commissioner.
Mak then read aloud from Hong Kong’s aviation security ordinance, which provides for potential life sentences for those found guilty of breaching its provisions.
Police also warned that anyone violating a court order barring disruption at the airport would be liable to be held in contempt of court.
With such threats, Beijing and its supporters in the Hong Kong government are dramatically raising the potential cost of taking part in protests.
The occupation at the airport remained subdued into Wednesday night, but scuffles between protesters and police that have defined the demonstrations in recent weeks continued in other parts of the city.
A few hundred protesters gathered in the Sham Shui Po area of Kowloon near a police station that has been a flash point for demonstrations.
Some burned joss paper — part of the tradition of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival, which begins Thursday — printed with the faces of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and the police commissioner. They also shone laser pointers at the police station.
About 10 p.m. local time, police fired multiple rounds of tear gas. People rushed to cover the canisters with traffic cones, trying to contain the irritant smoke.
Earlier Wednesday, the largely leaderless protest movement distributed statements on social media appealing for forgiveness from international travelers, journalists and medical personnel at the scene of the airport chaos.
Some even apologized to police, whose alleged brutality and refusal to apologize for the use of force in quelling demonstrations had fueled protesters’ anger in the first place.
“After an entire night’s reflection, we decided to bravely face our own shortcomings, and sincerely apologize to city residents that always supported us,” one letter read. “To police who were affected last night, we will deeply reflect and confront our problems.”
In the afternoon, Claudia Mo, a pro-democracy legislator whom Beijing portrays as a mastermind behind the unrest, scolded the protesters for undermining their cause by infuriating travelers and causing chaos at the transit hub.
“How would that actually help the Hong Kong cause?” Mo told reporters. “At a time when the protesters have been trying to garner support from the international community, you would be doing the opposite.”
The movement was entering a “very, very scary” moment, Mo said, floating the possibility that Beijing was engineering the escalation of tensions.
“Could there have been agents provocateurs?” she said. “Were we played into a trap? We don’t know all the details yet.”
Mo later told The Washington Post that she did not think Beijing would send in armed forces to quell the protests but did not rule it out after what happened Tuesday.
On Wednesday, a Chinese government spokesman referred to the events at the airport as “terrorism.” In a public post, a People’s Liberation Army WeChat account called “The People’s Front Line” noted that a garrison in Shenzhen was only 35 miles from the Hong Kong airport and that Chinese armed forces were obligated to respond to riots or terrorism.
Hours after a mob at the airport surrounded and beat Fu Guohao, a Chinese man later identified as a reporter for the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper, Fu came to be seen as a martyr on Chinese social media.
The People’s Daily, which owns the Global Times, launched a meme called “I support the Hong Kong police, you can hit me now” — the words Fu apparently said before he was beaten.
The hashtag attracted more than 300,000 replies on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service.
The latest salvos extended efforts by Beijing to promulgate its position on Hong Kong.
Shortly after violence erupted during protests in June, trolls flooded Twitter with thousands of pro-police and pro-China posts, said Fu King-wa, a professor who studies social media at the University of Hong Kong.
In more recent days, Chinese state outlets such as the People’s Daily have circulated fake news suggesting that a woman who was shot in the eye by police — possibly with a beanbag round — was, in fact, blinded by other protesters.
“Just last week, the narrative was about excessive police violence, but it’s changing every day,” Fu said. With the Global Times reporter now a hero in mainland China, “it’s become a full-on war of narratives,” Fu said. “It’s a pendulum swinging back and forth.”
Divisions appeared to deepen in the youth movement. For hours Tuesday evening, masked protesters argued over whether to allow passengers to board their flights and whether to tie the hands of the suspected Chinese spy or free him.
At one point, a protester who confronted paramedics for helping the alleged spy was forcibly carried off by five others.
After violence erupted near midnight, several young men embraced, bowed and apologized to an airport official who had been struck with water bottles and debris flung by others.
The unrest roiling Hong Kong erupted in June over a now-shelved proposal to allow suspects to be extradited to the mainland for trial. The movement has since grown into calls for investigations into police violence against protesters and resistance to what many see as Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Tuesday night’s disruption may prove to be a vital moment in this summer of rage.
Speaking to reporters at Hong Kong’s Legislative Council complex on Wednesday, a group of pro-Beijing lawmakers denounced the protesters’ treatment of the two Chinese men in the airport terminal. Some accepted the apologies offered online, while others rejected them.
“There is no reason why they should receive such kind of physical attack and receive such kind of violence upon their bodies,” said lawmaker Priscilla Leung. She added that it did not matter that protesters suspected one of the men of being an undercover police officer: “I don’t buy those excuses.”
If young people “are willing to admit that they have done something wrong, that is better than they still think that they have been doing something very correctly,” she said. “To give an apology is better than none.”
Anna Kam contributed to this report.