BEIJING — Satellite photos show what appear to be armored personnel carriers and other vehicles belonging to the China’s paramilitary People’s Armed Police parked in a sports complex in the city of Shenzhen, in what some have interpreted as a threat from Beijing to use increased force against pro-democracy protesters across the border in Hong Kong.
The pictures collected on Monday by Maxar’s WorldView show 500 or more vehicles sitting on and around the soccer stadium at the Shenzhen Bay Sports Center just across the harbor from the Asian financial hub that has been rocked by more than two months of near-daily street demonstrations.
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Flights at Hong Kong’s airport, one of the world’s busiest, were disrupted on Monday and Tuesday by a mass demonstration and occasional violence inside its terminal.
Chinese state media have said only that the Shenzhen exercises had been planned before hand and were not directly related to the unrest in Hong Kong, although they came shortly after the central government in Beijing said the protests were beginning to show the “sprouts of terrorism.”
President Donald Trump tweeted that U.S. intelligence believes that the Chinese government is moving troops to its border with Hong Kong and that, “Everyone should be calm and safe!”
Our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 13, 2019
Beijing has been apparently reluctant to send in police or army units from the mainland or to mobilize the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong to quell the unrest. It’s seen as mindful of the devastating effect that would have both on the territory’s reputation as a safe and stable place to invest in, and as indication of the Communist Party’s failure to win over the hearts and minds of the city’s 7.3 million residents, 22 years after the former British colony was handed over to China.
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Hong Kong: Thousands of protesters shut down International Airport
It would also be a shocking reminder of the PLA’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square 30 years ago, which remains a taboo subject in China but is memorialized with a massive rally and march each year in Hong Kong.
Yet, mainland China is believed to have already dispatched officers to fortify the ranks of the Hong Kong police, and may also have planted decoys among the protesters in order to encourage more violent acts that could eventually turn ordinary Hong Kongers against the protest movement.
Such a change in sentiments does not yet appear to have happened despite rising violence surrounding protests and the shutdown of the city’s usually bustling international airport for two days after it was occupied by demonstrators.
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Hong Kong protests: Police fire tear gas, rubber bullets
Police throw tear gas at protesters
Hong Kong police fired tear gas Wednesday at a group of pro-democracy protesters rallying outside a police station in a crowded urban neighborhood.
The protesters had gathered to burn “hell money” and incense as a way to show their opposition to the police during the month-long Hungry Ghost Festival, when offerings are made to ward off spirits of ancestors.
Police armed with riot shields and batons marched down streets in the blue-collar Sham Shui Po neighborhood. Officers carried warning flags and fired tear gas as they advanced, but protesters had already scrambled away.
Last week, the district was the scene of a protest against police after they arrested a university student leader for buying laser pointers, which police said were being used as a weapon against them.
Protesters at airport apologize
Hong Kong’s airport has cancelled all remaining departing flights for the second day after protesters took over the terminals.
Flights resumed at Hong Kong’s airport Wednesday after two days of disruptions marked by outbursts of violence that highlight the hardening positions of pro-democracy protesters and the authorities in the semi-autonomous Chinese city.
About three dozen protesters remained camped in the airport’s arrivals area a day after a mass demonstration and frenzied mob violence forced more than 100 flight cancelations. Additional identification checks were in place, but check-in counters were open and flights appeared to be operating normally.
Protesters spread pamphlets and posters across the floor in a section of the terminal but were not impeding travelers. Online, they also circulated letters and promotional materials apologizing to travelers and the general public for inconveniences during the past five days of airport occupations.
“It is not our intention to cause delays to your travels and we do not want to cause inconvenience to you,” said an emailed statement from a group of protesters. “We ask for your understanding and forgiveness as young people in Hong Kong continue to fight for freedom and democracy.”
The airport’s management said it had obtained “an interim injunction to restrain persons from unlawfully and willfully obstructing or interfering” with airport operations. It said an area of the airport had been set aside for demonstrations, but no protests would be allowed outside the designated area.
The airport had closed check-in for remaining flights late Tuesday afternoon as protesters swarmed the terminal and blocked access to immigration for departing passengers. Those cancelations were in addition to 200 flights canceled on Monday.
The airport disruptions have escalated a summer of demonstrations aimed at what many Hong Kong residents see as an increasing erosion of the freedoms they were promised in 1997 when Communist Party-ruled mainland China took over what had been a British colony.
While Hong Kong’s crucial travel industry suffers major losses, the city’s reputation as a well-regulated center for finance is also taking a hit. Some 21 countries and regions have issued travel safety alerts for their citizens traveling to Hong Kong, saying protests have become more violent and unpredictable.
The demonstrators are demanding Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam step down and scrap proposed legislation under which some suspects could be sent to mainland China, where critics say they could face torture and unfair or politically charged trials.
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Lam has rejected calls for dialogue, saying Tuesday the protesters were threatening to push their home into an “abyss.”
In a statement Wednesday, the Chinese Cabinet’s liaison office in Hong Kong said the protesters had “entirely ruptured legal and moral bottom lines” and would face swift and severe repercussions under Hong Kong’s legal system.
“Their behavior shows extreme contempt for the law, seriously damages Hong Kong’s international image and deeply hurts the feelings of the broad masses of their mainland compatriots,” the statement said.
Most of the protesters left the airport Tuesday after officers armed with pepper spray and swinging batons tried to enter the terminal, fighting with demonstrators who barricaded entrances with luggage carts. Riot police clashed briefly with the demonstrators, leading to several injuries and prompting at least one officer to draw a handgun on his assailants.
The burst of violence included protesters beating up at least two men they suspected of being undercover Chinese agents. Airport security appeared unable to control the crowd, and paramedics later took both men away. Police have acknowledged using “decoy” officers, and some protesters over the weekend were seen being arrested by men dressed like demonstrators – in black and wearing face masks.
Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Global Times, identified one of the men as a journalist at the nationalistic Chinese tabloid.
“Fu Guohao, reporter of GT website is being seized by demonstrators at HK airport,” Hu wrote on his Twitter account. “I affirm this man being tied in this video is the reporter himself. He has no other task except for reporting.”
Protesters on Wednesday apologized that some of them had become “easily agitated and over-reacted.” On posters, the demonstrators said they have been “riddled with paranoia and rage” after discovering undercover police officers in their ranks.
Hong Kong police said they arrested five people for unlawful assembly, assaulting police officers and possessing weapons. More than 700 protesters have been arrested in total since early June, mostly men in their 20s and 30s, but also including women, teenagers and septuagenarians.
Associated Press video journalist Katie Tam contributed to this report.
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