Hong Kong grounds all flights as protest paralyzes airport

By Helen Regan, Ben Westcott, James Griffiths and Jessie Yeung, CNN

Updated 10:11 p.m. ET, August 19, 2019
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6:51 a.m. ET, August 12, 2019

China said Hong Kong protests are showing signs of "terrorism." That's a concerning rhetorical escalation

Analysis by CNN's James Griffiths

Use of the terrorism label for the Hong Kong protests, even in a somewhat backhanded way, is a major rhetorical shift in how China has described the protests, and could foreshadow an escalation in Beijing's handling of them.

Earlier today, a top Chinese official said the protests -- now in their eleventh week -- had "begun to show signs of terrorism." In recent years, that term has only been used in a domestic Chinese context to refer to the actions of alleged Islamist groups, particularly in Xinjiang, the predominantly Muslim northwest region of China. Beijing has cracked down heavily in Xinjiang in recent years, establishing a massive system of so-called "re-education camps" in which millions of Muslims have been detained.

In domestic propaganda, there has been a major shift in recent weeks in how the protests are covered. Reports initially barely mentioned them, amid heavy censorship, as is usual for anti-government actions anywhere in China, but increasingly they have emphasized the violent side of the protests -- and sought to paint the protesters as separatists being controlled by the United States and other foreign "black hands."

Suggesting those protesters are also committing acts of terror could open the door for Beijing to crack down on Hong Kong, either by ordering the local police to escalate their use of force, or even by deploying the People's Liberation Army (PLA) in the city.

The PLA can be deployed in Hong Kong if the local government requests it, in order to assist with a major breakdown in public order. Local officials have previously refuted any suggestion they would do so.

Earlier Monday, police showed off a riot control vehicle with water cannon, previously never used in Hong Kong. Across the border in Shenzhen, the People's Armed Police, a paramilitary organization, conducted major exercises seen as a potential signal to protesters in Hong Kong.

6:32 a.m. ET, August 12, 2019

The airport's bus, train, and taxi exits are packed with people trying to leave

From CNN's Ben Westcott

Hong Kong International Airport, famed for its efficiency, has been thrown into chaos as frustrated travelers and protesters try to leave all at once.

Bus, taxi and train exits at the airport are now packed. There is a sense of fear among the protesters, amid speculation that riot police may arrive to disperse the crowds.

Some protesters are holding up signs directing others towards various exits, complete with estimated waiting times.

One organizer told CNN most people are going home, and that many want to stay safe today instead of clashing with police.

"I wish the people who want to leave can leave safely and I can't stop people who want to stay," another protester told CNN.

Meanwhile, small groups of protesters remain at the arrivals hall, shouting, "Stand with Hong Kong."

Take a look at the bus line outside the airport:

6:28 a.m. ET, August 12, 2019

Stranded traveler: "It took an hour to get out of the arrivals hall"

From CNN's Jenni Marsh

A line for the bus at the airport. Ben Westcott/CNN
A line for the bus at the airport. Ben Westcott/CNN Ben Westcott/CNN

Ben, a British expat who landed in Hong Kong at 4.20 p.m. on a Cathay Pacific flight from Cebu in the Philippines, said airport staff gave no warning of the chaos awaiting travelers trying to leave the airport. 

"It was wall-to-wall people chanting, 'Don't trust HK police' and providing maps of MTR stations that had been attacked in the last couple of days, and where people had been beaten up by the police," he said. 

Once through customs, Ben, who asked that CNN withhold his full name, said it took him an hour to battle through the arrivals hall. "Normally, it takes 10 minutes," he said.

Travelers stranded at the airport: The taxi stand was shut and Ben couldn't get on the Airport Express train, leaving him with few options to leave the airport.

"If you're waiting for that train, you're going to have to wait for an hour-plus, if not more," he said, describing a huge crowd waiting to catch the train, which takes 25 minutes to reach the city center.

"We weren't given any advice (after landing)," he said. "I'd seen on various WhatsApp groups what was going on, but there was nothing from airport staff warning what we were going to face." 

In the end, Ben left the airport terminal and walked up to the highway until he saw a taxi that dropped someone off.

6:24 a.m. ET, August 12, 2019

Chinese government condemns "terrorism" in Hong Kong

From CNN's Jadyn Sham and Maisy Mok

China's top office in charge of Hong Kong affairs issued a stern warning to the city on Monday, following violent clashes between protesters and police over the weekend.

Speaking at a press conference in Beijing, Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, claimed "heartless" protesters had thrown petrol bombs at police.

"Hong Kong’s radical demonstrators have repeatedly attacked police officers with extremely dangerous tools," he said. "They have already constituted serious violent crimes and have begun to show signs of terrorism. This is a gross violation of the rule of law and social order in Hong Kong, which is endangering the lives and safety for Hong Kong citizens."

Use of the term "terrorism" in describing the most recent protests caused considerable alarm among many in Hong Kong. Central government and local officials have so far ruled out the People's Liberation Army (PLA) intervening to help control the protests, but all pointed to a section of the city's de facto constitution which allows the Hong Kong government to request their help for the "maintenance of public order."

6:15 a.m. ET, August 12, 2019

Airport crowds begin trickling out, but thousands still remain

The airport is packed with thousands of protesters.
The airport is packed with thousands of protesters. Ben Westcott/CNN

With many expecting the police to show up at the airport, protesters are beginning to trickle out, and it's now a little easier to move around.

But thousands still remain, with crowds of people in both the arrivals and departures halls.

Many tell CNN they are trying to head home. There is a widespread fear of clashing with police -- which may be heightened after a weekend of intense violence, when police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in several parts of the city.

6:13 a.m. ET, August 12, 2019

Protesters demand "an eye for an eye" after a woman was shot in the eye yesterday

Protesters at the airport have plastered walls with posters and graffiti.  Ben Westcott/CNN
Protesters at the airport have plastered walls with posters and graffiti. Ben Westcott/CNN Ben Westcott/CNN

The slogan "an eye for an eye" is plastered all over the airport, on posters and in graffiti. It's a reference to the female protester whose eye was injured during clashes with the police on Sunday.

Police fired tear gas in several parts of the city Sunday to disperse protesters. One female was seen being treated by paramedics after she was hit in the face by an alleged police beanbag round.

Posters around the airport bear the slogan: "An eye for an eye."  Helen Regan/CNN
Posters around the airport bear the slogan: "An eye for an eye." Helen Regan/CNN Helen Regan/CNN

Unconfirmed reports that she had potentially lost an eye circulated Monday, stoking outrage at the police. Protesters called for an "evil police eye for an eye" demonstrations to be held in response -- with the airport as the primary target.

Earlier today, a police spokesperson said there wasn't enough evidence to determine the cause of the injury to the woman's eye and that police won’t investigate unless someone files a report on the incident.

6:02 a.m. ET, August 12, 2019

Many protesters head for the exits

From CNN's Ben Westcott, Helen Regan and James Griffiths

There are long queues for any form of transport away from Hong Kong International Airport, as both tourists and protesters attempt to leave. Many protesters are fleeing in advance of an expected police clearance operation, which some fear could be violent.

The demographics at the airport protest have mostly been older and more peaceful than the young radical protesters who have characterised recent street battles with police. On Telegram, the encrypted messaging app which protesters use to coordinate and document the protests, people shared maps of the airport with suggested evacuation routes.

"Police are going to arrive at six so we need to get out of here. We're saying we'll go together. They will just attack us and bring out the tear gas," one 30-year-old protester told CNN.

Earlier police would not rule out using tear gas at the airport.

Nikita, a 20-year-old student, said she too would head home. She had come to the airport thinking it was safer than being on the streets, where forceful police tactics have been criticized by protesters, but now feared she might be tear gassed.

Some protesters may choose to stay at the airport and defy police attempts to remove them. Younger protesters were seen heading to the main terminals even as some began to quit, and masked and helmeted people could be seen in the main arrivals hall.

5:58 a.m. ET, August 12, 2019

Hong Kong officials call for protesters to clear the airport

Frank Chan, Hong Kong’s transportation chief, told reporters that officials are calling for people to quickly leave the airport for safety reasons. 

"For the safety of airlines, tourists and staffs, we call for people at the airport to quickly leave the airport for our staff to continue the operation," said Chan. "We can only return to operation after considering tourists' and staff's safety."

"The Hong Kong airport is important for the logistic and transport industry. It is easy to lose, but it is really hard to build up the reputation," he said.

He added that the traffic jams and grounded flights are causing inconvenience, emphasizing that there are about 200,000 tourists coming to Hong Kong every day -- a key part of the city's economy.

There have been signs that the travel industry is taking a hit -- between June 16 and July 13, during which time there were several huge demonstrations, flight bookings to Hong Kong from Asia fell by 5.4% on the same period last year, according to analysis firm ForwardKeys.

5:57 a.m. ET, August 12, 2019

Airport protesters: "Sorry for the inconvenience but we're fighting for survival!"

Graffiti and posters are plastered over Hong Kong's airport.
Graffiti and posters are plastered over Hong Kong's airport. Helen Regan/CNN

Protesters have plastered posters, flyers and even spray-painted graffiti all over the airport.

One makeshift sign reads: "Sorry for the inconvenience but we're fighting for survival!"

Another says: "Shame on the cops." The sign refers to the police officers who protesters are accusing of brutality, corruption, inaction, and use of excessive force.

All departing flights, and several incoming flights, have been canceled because of the airport shutdown.