Protesters in Hong Kong take their grievances to the airport

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TEN weeks on, Hong Kong’s anti-government demonstrations have changed in nature, but show few signs of ending soon. Over the weekend, flash-mob style protests across the territory stretched the capabilities of an exhausted police, while leading to a sharp increase in violence employed by both sides. Protesters threw projectiles at police. On at least one occasion, a petrol bomb was hurled at the entrance to a police station. Police, in turn, have grown more ruthless, using methods that cause injury. Some have dressed like protesters, in black T-shirts and yellow hard-hats, and infiltrated crowds in order to catch and pin down those taking part in what they deem to be riots. Since August 5th police have used more tear gas and rubber bullets than in the previous two months put together. They are readier to fire at short range and even use tear gas in confined spaces with risks to the public, such as when chasing protesters into mass-transit stations and down the escalators.

It was the plight of one young woman, apparently shot in the eye with a bean-bag round during a demonstration on August 11th, that swiftly changed the dynamics of a separate protest at the international airport, originally planned to take place over three days. Over the weekend, the gathering had been calm and good-natured. Protesters shouted out “welcome to Hong Kong!” to travellers emerging through customs and plied them with leaflets about the pro-democracy cause. They apologised for the inconvenience to travellers, explaining that they were attempting to defend the kind of free and open Hong Kong that visitors like. Cheers echoed around the arrivals hall when travellers gave protesters the thumbs-up.

In truth, travellers were not much put out. But on August 12th calls on social media grew for Hong Kongers to head to the airport and show solidarity there with the injured woman while protesting against the alleged excessive use of force by police. Huge numbers descended by road and rail and filled both departures and arrivals areas. Rumours grew that some might attempt to interfere with air-traffic control. In the afternoon the airport declared that all outgoing flights were cancelled, while scheduled incoming ones were told not to take off for Hong Kong. Fearing that the police were about to clear the airport by force, most of the protesters left. Hundreds of travellers found themselves stranded in a near-deserted airport. The following day, as flights resumed, airlines struggled to get back to normal. But protesters soon returned, and flights were again cancelled.

The closure of the world’s eighth-busiest airport by passenger numbers underscores the mounting economic cost to Asia’s pre-eminent international financial centre inflicted by the unrest. What started as opposition to a controversial bill that would have allowed suspects in Hong Kong to be extradited to China has morphed into a popular revolt against the local government—and, for many protesters, against Chinese rule itself. The demands include the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill rather than just its shelving, and an independent inquiry into the whole affair. They are also calling for full democracy in the territory--something China has long made clear will not be allowed.

The protests have widespread support from many ordinary Hong Kongers. But the increasing violence alarms a growing number of people. Meanwhile, those sympathetic to China’s Communist Party and its proxies in the territory are among those to have been against the demonstrations from the start. That number includes Hong Kong’s mafia-like triads, who have taken the party’s side and used staves to beat and threaten pro-democracy protesters. Carrie Lam, the embattled chief executive, refuses to countenance acceding to the protest demands. Almost in tears, she talks of how the unrest has taken Hong Kong to the edge of an “abyss”. Yet she offers no guidance as to how she intends to walk the territory back, other than a reliance on police force to overawe the agitators.

Meanwhile, across the border in China, the official language grows more shrill. In Beijing this week the government warned that the demonstrations showed “early signs of terrorism”. It claims to divine nefarious “black hands” at work fostering the unrest—ie, the United States and its friends. A Chinese state television channel has published a video claiming, in no unsubtle terms, to show the People’s Armed Police taking part in a large exercise near the border with Hong Kong. The suggestion that Chinese forces might intervene in a territory which was supposedly given a high degree of autonomy at the time of its handover to China 22 years ago is raising alarm in many world capitals. The prime ministers of Canada and Australia have called for Hong Kong’s leaders to seek to de-escalate the crisis by listening to local concerns. In the current mood, China may well interpret such interventions as yet more foreign meddling.