Eighth Busiest Airport in the World Shuts Down For Second Day Over Pro-Democracy Protests in Hong Kong

A lone American flag appears at a sit-in rally at Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong on August 13, 2019. Protestors have been using both British and American flags as a symbol of defiance against the Chinese government.
Photo: AP

Hong Kong International Airport has been shut down for the second time in two days after pro-democracy protests disrupted normal operations. The airport, which handles 75 million passengers a year, is the eighth busiest in the world and a major international hub in Asia. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam warned that Hong risked sliding into “an abyss.”

The airport reopened this morning after being shut down last night, but departures were suspended Tuesday at around 4:30 pm local time, 4:30 am ET. Flight arrivals to Hong Kong International (HKG) appear to be unaffected as of 7:15 pm local time.

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“Terminal operations at Hong Kong International Airport have been seriously disrupted as a result of the public assembly at the airport today,” the Hong Kong Airport Authority said in a statement to the BBC, without going into more detail.

Protesters have been occupying the airport for five days and are primarily concerned with Beijing’s growing influence in Hong Kong. Citizens worry that the Chinese government is chipping away at the region’s long-held democratic norms and have objected to a controversial extradition bill that would make it easier for Beijing to snatch up anyone it deems a criminal. Hong Kong has operated under a “one country, two systems” agreement since 1997 when the city was formally handed over by the British.

Protesters were largely apologetic to air travelers for causing an inconvenience but have tried to explain they have no other choice. One video of an Australian passenger at the airport went viral in the region overnight after he could be heard saying that Hong Kong was part of China and that the protesters should “know their place.” Chinese state media are now using the clip for propaganda purposes to insist that the world stands against the protesters.

Reporters at the airport have also posted videos to social media which appear to show protesters trying to disrupt the movement of passengers who were attempting to get through security. That tactic has been seen as an escalation of otherwise peaceful protests.

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Many protesters at the airport wore eye patches in solidarity with a woman who had been shot in the eye by Hong Kong police over the weekend. Photos of the woman went viral and unverified news reports claim she has been permanently blinded in that eye. Photos posted by a Getty photographer on Tuesday showed at least one person holding a placard that reads, “An Eye For An Eye.”

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Chinese state media has not been shy about signaling its discontent with the protesters, both inside the airport and outside on the streets of Hong Kong. The English-language China Daily even tweeted video today showing armored vehicles preparing for a “drill” in Shenzhen. There’s widespread speculation that any military intervention by Beijing into Hong Kong would be staged from Shenzhen.

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Map showing Hong Kong in relation to Shenzhen, where Chinese military forces are preparing “drills” according to state media
Graphic: Google Maps

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has not formally withdrawn an extradition bill that was the original impetus for the Hong Kong protests started 10 weeks ago. Lam held a press conference today where she said that violence by protesters could lead Hong Kong “down a path of no return.”

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Lam also had a testy exchange with a Reuters reporter who asked whether she has the autonomy to withdraw the extradition bill. The suggestion left unsaid in the reporter’s question is that Lam isn’t really running Hong Kong and that Beijing is in control. Lam didn’t answer the question and simply said that it had “been answered on previous occasions.”

Lam has previously refused to step down from her position, as many protesters have demanded.

Passengers at Hong Kong International Airport have expressed frustration that the airlines are no longer picking up the phone when they call to inquire about changing their flights. Some stranded passengers were forced to sleep on the floor overnight after their outgoing flights had been canceled. It’s unclear what will happen to passengers tomorrow if the protests continue.

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The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized Hong Kong’s largest protests in June and July, announced today that it’s trying to organize another march for this coming Sunday. The march would start at 3pm Sunday but it hasn’t been approved yet by police, according to the Hong Kong Free Press.

Aside from the extradition bill, protesters are also calling for an independent investigation into police violence. Police have used teargas against protesters and have been captured on video shooting people with rubber bullets from just a few feet away. Videos on social media also show police indiscriminately clubbing protesters in subway stations.

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The share price of Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s largest airline, has dropped 7 percent over the past two days. And as we pointed out yesterday, rich people really don’t like losing money.

“We resolutely support the Hong Kong government, the chief executive and the police in their efforts to restore law and order,” the Swire Group, which owns Cathay Pacific, told the Financial Times on Tuesday.

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Unfortunately, the definition of “law and order” is currently up for debate in a place like Hong Kong.

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About the author

Matt Novak

Matt Novak is the editor of Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog