Hong Kong International Airport sit-in to add to day of mass protests

A Hong Kong Express Airways and Cathay Pacific Airways aircrafts at Hong Kong International Airport.

Paul Yeung | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Thousands of protesters are expected to rally at Hong Kong International Airport on Friday as they try to draw attention back to a set of specific demands “in front of an international audience,” according to social media posts from protesters.

The massive travel hub connects the city to more than 220 global destinations and served 74.7 million passengers last year, according to the airport’s website.

Online platforms such as Instagram, Telegram, Airdrop and local Hong Kong forums have become the main means of organization among protesters because they give some anonymity to users.

The demands were originally released in July, a day after a small group of protesters stormed the Hong Kong legislature:

  • a full withdrawal of a proposed bill that would allow Hong Kong people to be extradited to mainland China
  • a retraction of any characterization of the movement as a “riot”
  • a retraction of charges against anti-extradition protesters
  • an independent committee to investigate the Hong Kong police’s use of force
  • universal suffrage in elections for the city’s chief executive officer and legislature by 2020

So far, Hong Kong authorities have given no concessions, though Chief Executive Carrie Lam “suspended” the extradition bill last month.

Watch: What is Hong Kong’s relationship with China?

Thursday afternoon in the United States, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman called China a “thuggish regime” for disclosing photographs and personal details of a U.S. diplomat who met with student leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

Beijing on Wednesday released a photo showing leaders of the movement — including Joshua Wong, the face and leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement — with an American diplomat. Chinese authorities have asked the U.S. to explain why that contact was made and to explain the nature of their relationship.

Why are Hong Kongers protesting?

Hundreds of thousands of people in Hong Kong have taken to the streets since early June, spurred by opposition to a bill that would allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China. That proposal has been suspended — though not fully withdrawn.

Demonstrations have since evolved into a movement calling for autonomy, full democracy and the ousting of the embattled leader Lam.

Beijing has responded saying Hong Kong is facing its worst crisis since the handover from the United Kingdom in 1997, and the communist government has used increasingly pointed language to describe the protests.

“Violent activities are intensifying, and the impact on society is spreading wider. It can be said that Hong Kong is now facing the most severe situation since its handover,” Zhang Xiaoming, one of China’s most senior officials overseeing Hong Kong affairs, said on Wednesday.

Problems that go beyond politics

The demonstrations started as peaceful political rallies but have escalated to a broader, pro-democracy movement. The size of crowds on the streets and rising violence have called the well-being of Asia’s financial hub into question.

Flights were canceled by Hong Kong’s largest airline, Cathay Pacific on Monday, as part of a general strike that halted the city.

The United States raised its travel warning for Hong Kong on Wednesday, advising Americans to exercise caution when visiting the city.

Also Wednesday, a senior Cathay Pacific executive said the company is facing a decline in bookings for travel to Hong Kong. The “double digits” drop is largely due to widespread protests in the Asian financial center, he said.

Retail, real estate and other business sectors have also seen sales declines over the last few months. The city’s public transit system has also been disrupted on multiple occasions.

The discontent from protesters may go beyond politics. While the city’s rich have grown richer, the wealth gap in the city has grown wider, according to David Dodwell, a long-time observer of Asia politics.

Many people feel left behind and neglected by the government, and their frustration is fueling increasingly disruptive protests that have coursed through the city, said Dodwell, who is executive director at HK-APEC Trade Policy Group and a former Financial Times Asia correspondent.

“There is a very widespread anxiety in Hong Kong among the ordinary working person about their prospects going forward,” Dodwell told CNBC. He added that more than 90% of local Hong Kongers work for small- and medium-sized enterprises, which have not seen the kind of economic growth that big multinational corporations have.

— Reuters contributed to this report.

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