Hong Kong protesters apologize for ugly airport clashes as China ramps up criticism

After late-night mob scenes marred a demonstration that paralyzed this city’s airport, protesters on Wednesday issued apologies seeking the international public’s sympathy and forgiveness as they fought to regain control over a narrative that seemed to be tilting in Beijing’s favor for the first time.

The appeals, which included apologies to the police force, come as the struggle over public opinion reaches a climax. While Hong Kong’s protest movement has become steadily radicalized and fractured, the Chinese government has sharply ramped up a propaganda effort in state media and on social networks to discredit and deflate a movement that to this point enjoyed wide support across Hong Kong society.

Hong Kong’s airport ground to a near-halt for a second day Tuesday after protesters assailing 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 after 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 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 force in Hong Kong as a “color revolution” and 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 age 17 to 28 were detained, five for unlawful assembly and two for assaulting 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 breaking it. Police also warned that anyone violating a court order barring disruption at the airport would be liable for contempt of court.

Threats of such severe punishment fit with an approach by Beijing and its supporters in the Hong Kong government to dramatically raise the potential cost of taking part in demonstrations.

While the occupation at the airport remained subdued into Wednesday night, 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 local police station that has been a flash point for protests in recent weeks. Some burned joss paper — part of the tradition of the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival that begins Thursday — printed with the faces of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and the city’s police commissioner. They also beamed laser pointers at the police station.

At about 10 p.m. local time, police fired multiple rounds of tear gas, which people rushed to cover with traffic cones as a way of directing the smoke away from the protesters.

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. Some even apologized to the police force, whose alleged brutality and refusal to apologize for its use of force in quelling street 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, an opposition pro-democracy legislator whom Beijing portrays as a mastermind behind the unrest, scolded the protesters for undermining their cause by infuriating travelers and sparking chaotic scenes 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, said Mo, her tone turning conspiratorial as she floated the possibility that Beijing was engineering the escalation of tensions.

“Could there have been agents provocateurs?” Mo 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 believe Beijing would send in armed forces to quell the uprising. But after what happened Tuesday, she feared it might.

On Wednesday, a Chinese government spokesman referred to the airport chaos as “terrorism.” In a public post, a People’s Liberation Army WeChat account called “The People’s Front Line” noted that a nearby 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 Baoguo, 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 exploded in popularity and attracted more than 300,000 replies on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service. The Communist Youth League and the official Xinhua News Agency announced a rally in support of Hong Kong police scheduled for this weekend at Tiananmen Square — a highly sensitive site in central Beijing where mass, independent political activities are unthinkable.

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 bean bag 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 becoming 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 within the youth movement as well. 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 to release him.

At one point, a radical 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 by 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 mainland China for trial. The movement has since grown into calls for investigations into police violence against protesters, and resistance toward Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Tuesday night’s disruption may prove to be a vital moment in the summer of rage.

Speaking to reporters at Hong Kong’s Legislative Council complex on Wednesday, a group of pro-Beijing lawmakers denounced the actions of protesters toward 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, a critic of the anti-extradition bill movement. Leung added that it did not matter that protesters suspected that one of the men was an undercover police officer: “I don’t buy those excuses to try to give any kind of reasons to put or to add different kinds of speculation.”

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.

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