The largest mass anti-government protests in Hong Kong’s history have now entered their third month, with demonstrators occupying and effectively paralyzing Hong Kong airport, the eighth busiest in the world, on Monday. Hundreds of flights — nearly the entire outbound schedule for the day — were canceled. Though initially about an extradition bill that threatened Hong Kong’s judicial independence, the protests have since morphed into a broad movement for democracy and against Beijing’s attempts to impose its will, putting the city at risk of a direct intervention by the Chinese military.
Protesters wore black and carried anti-police signs referring to an earlier incident in which a woman was blinded by a projectile fired by riot police. The moment has become a rallying cry for people accusing police of using excessive force, with demonstrators wearing eyepatches and fake bandages over their eyes out of solidarity.
Since the movement’s first mass rallies in early June, activists have become increasingly bold and willing to take direct action. Using carts as battering rams, protesters managed to break into the Hong Kong Legislative Council Complex on the first of July, taking over the main chamber and graffiting slogans on the walls. The airport is now the latest target, and perhaps the most directly damaging to Hong Kong’s prestige and economy,
As both a heavily integrated global financial center and a primary transportation hub for Asia, Hong Kong’s economic stability has worldwide ramifications. Prolonged closure of its airport could mean billions of dollars in damage, not only to the economy of China but also to the foreign corporations that operate out of the city and travelers passing through.
As perhaps the most globally visible and freest of China’s megacities, Hong Kong is also in a unique position to agitate for democracy in the city and on the mainland, a possibility that the central government finds unacceptable. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has met with pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong in the past, undermining the Chinese Communist Party’s claim to exclusive control of Hong Kong’s external affairs. Occupying the airport is at once a symbolic and pragmatic move on the part of the protesters, forcing the confrontation with authorities into view of an international audience.
As expected, the Communist Party has been monitoring the movement with increasing impatience and concern. Troops from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s military, were reported to have begun massing on the Hong Kong border around two weeks ago. Shortly after, the PLA released a propaganda video showing its Hong Kong garrison performing live fire exercises, ostensibly to demonstrate its ability to “protect” the city. As if to preemptively justify increased use of force, officials have begun referring to protesters as “terrorists,” a characterization that is rejected by members of the Hong Kong police.
The military build-up has resulted in comparisons to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, in which hundreds of civilians died after the PLA intervened. Given the vulnerable state of the Chinese economy, however, which faces slowing growth and a grueling trade war with the U.S., the Communist Party is unlikely to risk the blow to its reputation that a military solution would entail. Rather than engage in a repeat of Tiananmen Square, the PLA seems instead to be evoking its memory to threaten the protesters into standing down. Anything to keep the planes running on time.