Violent protests are driving Hong Kong down a “path of no return”, the city’s leader warned Tuesday as its airport struggled to recover from an unprecedented shutdown triggered by a rally and authorities in Beijing sent more ominous signals that the unrest must end.
The airport, one of the busiest in the world, re-opened on Tuesday morning but hundreds of flights remained cancelled and protesters called for a new rally there later in the day.
The abrupt closure came 10 weeks into a crisis that has seen millions of people take to Hong Kong’s streets in the biggest challenge to Chinese rule of the semi-autonomous city since its 1997 handover from Britain.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam warned on Tuesday of the dangerous consequences facing the city, one of Asia’s most important financial hubs, if escalating violence at the rallies was not curbed.
“Violence, no matter if it’s using violence or condoning violence, will push Hong Kong down a path of no return, will plunge Hong Kong society into a very worrying and dangerous situation,” Lam said.
“The situation in Hong Kong in the past week has made me very worried that we have reached this dangerous situation.”
Lam, who faced fierce questioning from local reporters and at one point appeared to be on the verge of tears, appealed for calm.
“Take a minute to think, look at our city, our home, do you all really want to see it pushed into an abyss,” Lam said, although she again refused to make any concessions to the protesters.
At Hong Kong airport, operations resumed early on Tuesday morning, a day after thousands of protesters converged on it.
But the chaos was far from over, with a massive backlog of flights to clear.
Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, on Tuesday morning listed more than 200 flight cancellations and urged customers to postpone non-essential travel from Hong Kong.
Frank Filser, 53, was struggling to reschedule a flight back to Germany to visit his father who has terminal cancer.
But he said he sympathised with the protesters despite the disruption.
“They fight for Hong Kong and that’s their view,” he said.
“Anytime I can go back to Germany, but what about the people who grew up here? This is their home.”
Only a handful of protesters remained at the airport and it was unclear how many would respond to calls on social media to return later in the day.
Many of the posters and artwork the protesters had hung throughout the airport on Monday were taken down, but graffiti – some reading “an eye for an eye” – could still be seen in several places.
The protesters adopted the slogan after a woman suffered a serious facial injury that reportedly caused her to lose the vision in one eye at a demonstration that turned violent on Sunday night.
The demonstrators have accused police of causing the injury by firing a bean-bag round, and cite the case as evidence of what they say has been an excessive and disproportionate response by police to their protests.
The protests began in opposition to a bill that would have allowed extraditions to the mainland, but quickly evolved into a broader bid to reverse a slide of rights and freedoms in the southern Chinese city.
The demonstrations have become increasingly violent, with police using tear gas and rubber bullets, and protesters sometimes hurling bricks and bottles.
Authorities in Beijing on Monday slammed violent protesters who threw petrol bombs at police officers, linking them to “terrorism”.
“Hong Kong’s radical demonstrators have repeatedly used extremely dangerous tools to attack police officers, which already constitutes a serious violent crime, and also shows the first signs of terrorism emerging,” said Yang Guang, spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council.
Hours later, two state media outlets ran videos showing armoured personnel and troop carriers purportedly driving to Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.
China’s state-run media on Tuesday then sought to ramp up the pressure.
“Black-clad mobsters have created an atmosphere of terror on the Hong Kong streets,” the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary.
A senior official in the administration of US President Donald Trump on Monday urged “all sides” to avoid violence in Hong Kong.
“Societies are best served when diverse political views are respected and can be freely and peacefully expressed,” the official said on condition of anonymity.