“Carrie Lam, step down!” they shouted, referring to the city’s embattled leader. Some wore hard hats and carried umbrellas, symbols of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. “Please, don’t trust the police,” they cried.
The action, organized by aviation workers such as flight attendants and airport staff, marked the latest and most international phase in a campaign by Hong Kongers to safeguard the semiautonomous city’s relative freedom and rule of law from what they see as the Chinese government’s steady erosion of their rights. Unlike in previous protests, the demonstrators at the airport wrote signs and fliers primarily in English, and alternated between Cantonese and English chants.
Weeks of protests here were triggered by a government plan to allow extraditions to mainland China. Hong Kong officials subsequently shelved the bill but have not formally withdrawn it — a key demand of protesters. The protest movement has grown to encompass broader demands, including Lam’s resignation and an inquiry into police and gang violence against demonstrators.
There are signs the struggle is taking on an international dimension, with protests planned across Australia this weekend.
Unrest in Hong Kong escalated on Sunday when groups of white-shirted men attacked protesters at a suburban train station, leaving dozens injured. Police took more than half an hour to respond, despite receiving 24,000 emergency calls about the incident.
On Friday, many air passengers arriving in Hong Kong — one of the world’s busiest hubs — seemed intrigued by the spectacle. They peered curiously at iPad screens held by protesters showing footage of Sunday’s mob attack as protesters handed out fliers detailing their grievances. One warned visitors that the Hong Kong government “employs thugs to beat protesters.”
Some posters were written in the simplified Chinese characters used in mainland China, the top source of Hong Kong’s tourists, where media coverage of the protests has been heavily censored.
Mainland visitors seemed hesitant to take the fliers. One young Chinese woman, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the demonstration was “very bad and rude.”
Others did not seem to mind. Disruption to passenger travel was minimal, with no immediate reports of delayed flights. The airport authority demarcated an area where the demonstrators could gather and set up clear passageways for arriving passengers.
“I agree with them,” said an 18-year-old who had arrived from France for an internship and gave her name only as Canelle. “I also don’t want China to have too much power. They are fighting for their rights.” She added, “But it’s not a good thing to see when you first arrive here.”
Some countries have warned their citizens about the situation in Hong Kong. Ireland this week issued a broad travel warning, while Canada, Singapore and Japan urged people to monitor and avoid areas where demonstrations are planned.
Seeking to dispel safety concerns, Hong Kong Commerce Secretary Edward Yau told foreign diplomats and business leaders in a letter this week that Hong Kong was a “welcoming city for investors and visitors, and a safe city for travelers.”
“The vast majority of people taking part in processions do so in a peaceful and orderly manner,” he wrote.
Police have defended their response to protests, including the use of tear gas, and have said they are overstretched. Officers arrested six people in connection with Sunday’s mob attack in Yuen Long, near the border with mainland China.
Further confrontations appear likely this weekend. Organizers of a protest planned for Saturday in the same area as Sunday’s attack said they intend to go ahead with the rally even though police refused to authorize the event, citing safety risks, and warned that anyone showing up would be breaking the law.
Earlier in the week, China’s government hinted at possible military options to quell the unrest.
Elsewhere, anti-China protests organized by overseas Hong Kongers could expand to several Australian cities this weekend, including Sydney and Melbourne, after a campus clash in Brisbane was marred by violence.
China’s government waded Thursday into a controversy over the clash at the University of Queensland, where students held competing demonstrations over Hong Kong that escalated into fistfights.
Hundreds of students, including many from Hong Kong, gathered Wednesday to condemn China’s actions in Hong Kong and its clampdown in the western Xinjiang region, before they were confronted by Chinese students, who tore their posters and seized their loudspeaker, leading to a violent scuffle, according to participants and videos circulating on social media.
The organizer, Drew Pavlou, a 20-year-old student, said he was struck in the ribs, mouth and the side of his head.
“In the days after the protest, I received dozens of death threats, and my image was circulated” on Chinese social media, he said. “I have feared for my life.”
China’s consulate general in Brisbane appeared to endorse its students’ behavior afterward, saying in a statement that it “affirms the spontaneous patriotic behavior of Chinese students” and condemning what it called “anti-China separatist activities” taking place on campus.
The consulate urged Chinese students to pay attention to Australian laws and to their own safety but did not address the outbreak of campus violence.
The incident revived concerns about the phenomenon of nationalistic Chinese students stifling anti-Chinese speech on campuses worldwide. Many overseas Chinese students say they are surprised and personally offended by what they see as anti-Chinese sentiment once they head abroad.
Alex Joske, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who specializes in the Communist Party’s influence abroad, said there is no evidence that students were coordinated or directed to disrupt the Hong Kong demonstration this week, but there have been such documented cases in the past.
In 2008, Chinese students were mobilized to fight back against Free Tibet protesters during the Olympic torch relay passing through Australia.
“Whether or not the consulate specifically directed the events at Queensland, it clearly tries to ensure Chinese students understand they’re expected to defend the Chinese government’s image abroad,” Joske said.
Other experts warn that Chinese consulates worldwide also encourage acts of nationalism and step in to offer guidance to overseas students. Images of a chat group seen by The Washington Post in February showed a Chinese consulate in Canada instructing Chinese students to take pictures and video at a campus talk by a Uighur activist they regarded as a separatist.
Shih reported from Beijing.