Mob violence tests the limits of Hong Kong’s leaderless protest movement

Updated 8:55 PM EDT, Thu August 15, 2019
Medical staffs carry a detained man, who protesters claimed was a police officer from mainland China, during a demonstration at the Airport in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. Riot police clashed with pro-democracy protesters at Hong Kong's airport late Tuesday night, a chaotic end to a second day of demonstrations that caused mass flight cancellations at the Chinese city's busy transport hub. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
Vincent Yu/AP
Medical staffs carry a detained man, who protesters claimed was a police officer from mainland China, during a demonstration at the Airport in Hong Kong, Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019. Riot police clashed with pro-democracy protesters at Hong Kong's airport late Tuesday night, a chaotic end to a second day of demonstrations that caused mass flight cancellations at the Chinese city's busy transport hub. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
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Hong Kong’s protesters want you to know they’re sorry.

After ugly scenes at the city’s international airport Tuesday, where protesters beat and detained a man they accused of being an undercover police officer for several hours, the largely leaderless protest movement has been engulfed in a bout of soul searching.

Why are Hong Kongers protesting?

Small groups of protesters gathered at the airport again Wednesday, despite a new injunction banning demonstrations there, bearing signs such as “dear tourists, we’re deeply sorry about what happened yesterday. We were desperate and we made imperfect decisions. Please accept our apology.”

A statement emailed to journalists by one group claiming to represent protesters pointed to days of peaceful demonstrations at the airport, saying the violence Tuesday was an unfortunate aberration.

“We are frightened, angry and exhausted,” the statement said. “Some of us have become easily agitated and over-reacted last night. For this we feel pained and dispirited and would like to express our most sincere apologies.”

Demonstrators hold a sign at the Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019.
Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Demonstrators hold a sign at the Hong Kong International Airport in Hong Kong, China, on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2019.

The protest movement started with largely peaceful mass demonstrations attended by hundreds of thousands of people demanding the withdrawal of a since-suspended extradition bill. As the movement’s demands have been ignored, however, violence on both sides has escalated, and distrust has grown. This reached new heights over the weekend, when police dressed as protesters were filmed taking part in arrests, and unsubstantiated accusations circulated claiming they acted as agents provocateurs carrying out the worst of the violence.

It was perhaps inevitable that the heightened paranoia would spill over into something worse, as it did at the airport on Tuesday when the crowd grabbed the 23-year-old Chinese man surnamed Xu, accusing him of being an undercover police officer.

At times the violence threatened to spiral out of control, as members of the crowd continued to lash out at the detained man even after he appeared to fall unconscious and was receiving aid from paramedics.

Another Chinese man, later confirmed to be a reporter for a Chinese state owned newspaper, was also grabbed and assaulted, before being removed from the airport by medics.

When protesters did attempt to reason with those determined to detain Xu, they were shouted down, with many reduced to tears from fear and frustration. The incident showed clearly the growing rift in the mass movement between those supportive of increasingly violent and radical action, and those who wish to keep protesting peacefully.

It also emphasized a key problem in leaderless protests: When no one is in control, whoever shouts loudest tends to get their way.

03:03 - Source: CNN
Chinese paramilitary posts near Hong Kong amid protests

How did the airport protests turn violent?

When airport authorities announced that all departing flights had been canceled on Tuesday, for the second day in a row, there was jubilation among the thousands of protesters gathered there.

What happened at Hong Kong International Airport?

  • Protesters gathered at Hong Kong airport from July 9. Mass protests on July 12 and 13 led all outgoing flights to be canceled. On July 13, protesters grabbed three men they accused of acting suspiciously.
  • One, surnamed Xu, was beaten and detained for several hours before being evacuated by paramedics.
  • Another was found with sticks, but released after showing ID.
  • A third man, Fu Guohao, was detained and beaten after it was revealed he was a reporter for China's state-run Global Times. He was also later released.

In contrast to the protesters who had gathered at the airport throughout the weekend – when it was seen as a peaceful, safe place to stage a protest away from the teargas and petrol bombs that have become a common sight in street clashes – the crowd Tuesday was younger and more radical, most wore masks and other protective gear.

They were also more paranoid and irrational, quick to anger, lashing out at each other, airport security and reporters as the situation around Xu – the detained man – grew uglier and uglier.

Xu was first accosted at around 6:45 p.m., and accused of being an undercover cop. What exactly elicited the crowd’s suspicion remains unclear – there are multiple contested accounts – but the situation quickly devolved, with protesters around the airport rushing to the scene. Some punched and kicked Xu as airport security and staff attempted to intervene.

Over the next four hours, those security guards, joined by two or three protesters and a paramedic – and aided occasionally by foreign journalists – attempted to reason with the crowd to let Xu go as his situation worsened. The area in which he was initially held was intensely hot and stuffy, and surrounded by an agitated crowd, he collapsed. A paramedic who arrived gave him oxygen but Xu drifted in and out of consciousness as his protectors negotiated with the crowd to move him to the main terminal.

And that’s where he remained – after being moved, while unconscious on a luggage trolley – for over an hour.

Some protesters who could not see him shared photos of his bruised face that had been posted online, laughing at his predicament. No hard evidence was provided for him definitely being a cop other than a Google search which came up with a police officer in Shenzhen with a name that matched the one protesters found on his personal ID.

While the consensus in the terminal was to hold him – to what end, no one was clear – the debate online was far more vigorous. Many pointed to the terrible optics of preventing paramedics evacuating the casualty, highlighting tweets from reporters in the airport as examples of how the incident was being received overseas. Others took an even more extreme stance to those on the ground, with posts suggesting suspected infiltrators should be branded in some way so they could be spotted in future.

“Hong Kong people are in a very dangerous moment, some things in front of you may look crazy but we have no choice,” Max, a 35-year-old protester, told CNN at the airport. “It’s just like war, we’re fighting for our future.”

A female protester – who did not give a name – said through tears after an attempt to free Xu was shouted down that “this is all so stupid and crazy. This is a disaster.”