Tensions between Hong Kong and China soared Tuesday as riot police clashed with protesters occupying Hong Kong’s main airport, amid reports that Beijing was assembling forces and military assets near the border with the city.
In dramatic footage, baton-wielding police in riot gear clashed with masked protesters at the airport, which is one of the largest in the world. The mass of demonstrators, who for a second straight day had largely closed down all flights out of the airport, barricaded several entrances with luggage carts in an attempt to slow the police approach.
The seizure of the massive airport was the demonstrators’ latest escalation in a campaign originally sparked by plans from Hong Kong’s government for an extradition law with Beijing that many Hong Kong residents saw as an infringement on the city’s autonomy and guaranteed right to its own government and economic systems.
The surging tensions have sparked a fierce debate over whether and how long Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party will allow the standoff to go on. President Trump fueled the speculation with a Twitter post Tuesday that said U.S. intelligence “has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!”
It could not be determined whether Mr. Trump was revealing fresh troop movements or deployments already reported in the media over the weekend and on Monday. Paramilitary police were seen assembling across the border in the city of Shenzhen for what officials described as training exercises.
Mr. Trump also took heat from Democratic rivals and some Hong Kong advocates for not speaking more forcefully against the government’s pressure tactics, even as Beijing and Washington are engaged in a fierce trade war.
In recent weeks, the protest movement’s anger at the now-withdrawn extradition law has morphed into a much larger protest against the state of democracy in the city and the record of Beijing-appointed city Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
The Associated Press reported that black-clad protesters held up signs to appeal to travelers from mainland China and other parts of the world. “Democracy is a good thing,” one sign said.
Demonstrations over the weekend turned violent, and over 700 protesters have been arrested since the demonstrations began in early June.
Earlier in the day, Chinese state-run media released video of armored vehicles reportedly carrying troops to Shenzhen. The Chinese government said in a statement that the protests are “terrorism,” an ominous characterization that could lay the groundwork for intervention.
The Chinese military rejected the U.S. Navy’s request for port visits to the city over the next several weeks, a Pentagon official confirmed to The Washington Times. The USS Green Bay and USS Lake Erie were scheduled to visit the port.
“We have a long track record of successful port visits to Hong Kong, and we expect them to continue,” the official said.
Fear of intervention
With few signs the protests are set to subside, “the likelihood of a heavy-handed intervention by Beijing is now growing,” said Dan Kliman, the director of Asia-Pacific security for the Center for a New American Security.
But any forceful move could revive memories of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and deeply stain China’s image as it seeks to project itself as a major military force and an emerging global economic superpower.
“China’s use of its public security forces or military to quell the Hong Kong protests would produce long-lasting international blowback and irrefutably demonstrate the ideological nature of today’s great power competition,” Mr. Kliman said.
Top Chinese officials, who go into a major annual leadership conference in the coming days, are said to be loath to send troops into the city but are fearful that allowing the protests and defiance to go on would be seen as a sign of weakness in Taiwan and other places.
But Beijing’s state-controlled press has grown increasingly pointed in its commentary on the events in Hong Kong and openly speculated that the U.S. government was backing a “color revolution” in the city along the lines of similar uprisings in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the state-backed news outlet Global Times, tweeted that “it is hoped Hong Kong can restore order by itself. That is the best end.”
But, he added, “if the development of the situation suggests there is no such hope, Beijing’s intervention will be inevitable. It’s a hard choice, but once it becomes the decision, it will be a firm one.”
Ms. Lam, the city’s embattled chief executive, said during a Tuesday morning press conference that the “riot activities [had] pushed Hong Kong to the brink of no return.” She charged that “illegal activity” caused damage to the city and it could take a “long time for Hong Kong to recover.”
“The only thing we have to do is to go against violence and rebuild the city,” Ms. Lam said. “Police are an important defense of Hong Kong.”
U.S. lawmakers, who are in the middle of a four-week-long August recess, took to Twitter to show support for the demonstrations and people of Hong Kong.
Rep. Ted S. Yoho, Florida Republican, praised the protesters and said their spreading movement reflects the “continued encroachment on freedoms and liberties” by the Xi government.
Mr. Trump’s measured remarks drew criticism from Democrats on the House Foreign Relations Committee, which tweeted “Actually, the situation is straightforward: the people of Hong Kong and their fight for freedom & democracy deserve our respect & support. Failing to say so unequivocally is a betrayal of American leadership and values.”
The spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned “any form of violence” and urged restraint.
In a statement, Commissioner Michelle Bachelet called on local authorities “to engage in an open and inclusive dialogue aimed at resolving all issues peacefully … to ensure that the right of those who are expressing their views peacefully are respected and protected.”
⦁ This article was based in part on wire service reports.
Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC.