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Protesters Plan to Swarm Hong Kong’s Airport, a Symbol of Efficiency

HONG KONG — Antigovernment protesters are expected to kick off a three-day demonstration on Friday at Hong Kong’s international airport, a symbolic attack on both a global transit hub and the city’s closely guarded reputation for order and efficiency.

The protest, which is scheduled to begin early Friday afternoon in the airport’s arrival hall, comes as Hong Kong reels from its worst political crisis since Britain handed the former colony back to China in 1997, and less than a week after protests and a general strike caused chaos in the city and led to 148 arrests.

In recent days, mainland Chinese officials have issued stern warnings to protesters about the risks of continuing their broad campaign for political reforms. The movement began in opposition to a bill that would have allowed extraditions to the mainland — where the courts are controlled by the ruling Communist Party — but has since expanded to include a range of other demands for greater democracy.

The protests this summer began two months ago with a mostly peaceful march that drew hundreds of thousands of people in a city of about seven million. Demonstrations have since continued on a smaller scale, though on Monday they reached a new pitch, as protesters followed their call for a general strike by disrupting flights and snarling commutes.

In recent weeks, the protests have often ended with the Hong Kong police firing tear gas and rubber bullets in clashes with protesters. A hard-core contingent of young protesters has increasingly embraced violent street tactics, arguing that the government has ignored more peaceful displays. They stormed and vandalized the local legislature on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, and have since attacked several police stations and set fires outside them.

But several protesters, including employees of Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, Cathay Pacific Airways, stressed that the demonstration this weekend was meant to be an entirely nonviolent way of maintaining the movement’s momentum.

“The airport is a symbol of what Hong Kong means on the international stage, and where visitors come into our city,” said Laurie Wen, a writer and documentary filmmaker in Hong Kong. “Our international image is important to us, and we have to keep up the international attention.”

The airport handled nearly 75 million passengers last year, making it the world’s eighth busiest for passengers, according to Airports Council International. It was also the world’s busiest aviation terminal for cargo.

The government has already suspended the contentious extradition bill that set off the unrest in early June, but protesters are demanding a complete withdrawal of it, along with an independent inquiry into what they call police misconduct and the resignation of the territory’s embattled chief executive, Carrie Lam.

The stakes are high this weekend partly because the protesters have not applied for permission to hold the demonstration, as they have for other protests in recent weeks. That technically makes it an illegal assembly and raises questions about whether it will prompt a physical clash between protesters and the police.

ImageCreditJerome Favre/EPA, via Shutterstock

“Once there is confrontation, that changes the calculation,” said Will Horton, the Asia editor at Orient Aviation, a trade magazine that covers the airline industry. “It’s not just passengers that become hesitant to go to the airport, it’s the vast numbers of local employees and foreign crew who will ask their airlines if it is safe for them to fly to Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong’s Airport Authority said on Thursday that it was aware of plans for a “public assembly” the next day. It also said, without elaborating, that it “understands that there is no application so far for these activities” and “has contingency measures to ensure smooth airport operations.”

Later on Thursday, the authority posted a notice on its website saying that the airport would operate normally on Friday, although it advised passengers to check their flight status before traveling and to allow “sufficient time” for the journey.

The Hong Kong police said in a separate statement that while they could not comment on operational details, they planned to “monitor the latest developments, then make appropriate arrangement and deployment plans.”

Asked what might happen if protesters tried to enter a secure area of the airport, Mr. Horton said that in similar cases in other cities, the authorities had emptied the secure area and rescreened everyone inside.

On Wednesday, the United States joined several other countries — including Australia, Britain, Ireland, Japan and Singapore — in issuing a warning to its citizens about traveling to Hong Kong. It advised them to “exercise increased caution” because of recent “confrontational” protests.

The local government said on Thursday that while visitors might have been inconvenienced by the recent protests, Hong Kong remained “a welcoming city for tourists and travelers from around the world.”

Ms. Wen, the writer, said she and her fellow protesters were confident that the police would not dare use tear gas or rubber bullets against them inside the airport, much less “shut the place down entirely.”

“The chances of that are very low, and we plan to be very peaceful,” she said. “So if the government uses force, they will be once again showing the world how oppressive they are and proving our point.”

Protesters held a more limited version of this weekend’s protest at the airport last month, in which hundreds of people chanted and held signs in the arrival hall.

Aviation workers featured prominently in the general strike on Monday. Carol Ng, a union representative for the Hong Kong Cabin Crew Federation, said nearly 4,000 people from the Hong Kong aviation sector called in sick in solidarity, including more than 1,500 Cathay Pacific employees and about 30 of the airport’s roughly 90 air traffic controllers. More than 200 flights were canceled.

In a written statement, Cathay Pacific dodged a question about how many of its employees had participated in the general strike, saying only that its flights that day had been “curtailed because of the air traffic flow control measures.”


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