HONG KONG — Hong Kong protesters apologized Wednesday and appeared to engage in soul searching about their increasingly confrontational tactics, after activists attacked two men at the airport in scenes that Chinese authorities described as “close to terrorism.”
Protests this week at the airport, one of the world’s busiest, caused hundreds of flight cancellations and delivered a blow to a symbol of Hong Kong’s efficiency and economic prominence.
The airport said Wednesday that at 2 p.m. it would begin limiting terminal access to ticketed passengers and airport workers. The airport obtained a temporary court injunction, which threatened to eliminate the transportation hub as one of the protesters’ most visible venues for demonstrations.
Demonstrations at the airport began Friday and stayed peaceful for days, as protesters made their case to many of the 200,000 passengers it handles each day.
But uglier scenes developed Tuesday, as a few scuffles broke out between protesters and travelers, who for the first time were being blocked from the departure gates.
In the evening, with tensions rising, some protesters surrounded, tied up, and beat two men from mainland China — one of whom they suspected of being a security officer, while the other proved to be a reporter for a Communist Party-owned newspaper.
Riot police officers briefly entered the front doors of the airport, and one drew but did not fire his pistol after a scuffle with protesters.
On Wednesday, protesters seemed well aware of the negative image they had presented. They are navigating a tricky situation, as continued violence by the protesters could risk losing support among the general public for their movement. In their apologies, they played to their desperation, the sense that they had limited options as the government ignored their demands.
“We apologize for our behavior but we are just too scared,” read one post on a messaging channel used by protesters, which gained wider distribution on other social media. “Our police shot us, government betrayed us, social institutions failed us. Please help us.”
“Please accept our sincere apology to all travelers, press reporters, paramedics,” read another post. “We will learn from our mistakes. Please give us a second chance to prove ourselves that we can be better.”
Some protesters said that recent police tactics, including undercover officers apparently dressing as protesters to make arrests, had contributed to a sense of fear. Video of one recent arrest showed officers, one in the black T-shirt and yellow helmet commonly worn by demonstrators, grinding a protester’s bloodied face into the pavement.
“We hope everyone, including travelers in and out of Hong Kong, would also understand the stress, the panickiness, the suspicion, the restlessness involved in the crowd at the airport ever since the Hong Kong police force’s admission of masquerading a certain number of officers as protesters with the aim of getting them arrested,” Claudia Mo, a prodemocratic legislator, said at a news conference Wednesday.
Later Wednesday night, police fired tear gas at protesters who demonstrated in the neighborhood of Sham Shui Po, the site of a similar confrontation Sunday.
The protests — which began over a now-suspended plan to allow extraditions to mainland China, but have grown to include calls for more direct elections and investigations into the police’s use of force — have been largely leaderless. A march in June drew as many as 2 million people, according to organizers, and thousands have continued to join near-daily demonstrations.
China, which has been striking an increasingly strident tone with the protests, played up the chaos at the airport as part of a broader propaganda push to discredit the movement. The violence at the airport by the protesters received prominent coverage in mainland China’s state media.
“What a shame for Hong Kong,” People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s main mouthpiece, said in a message on social media.
A quote from the reporter who was beaten, “I support the Hong Kong police,” became a top trending term on Weibo, a Twitter-like platform. The reporter, Fu Guohao, is doing well and was not seriously injured, said Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of Global Times, the nationalist tabloid that employs him.
“It’s the utmost disgrace for the protesters to treat a reporter like this,” Hu said in a message. “This shows that they have lost their rationality. Hatred has muddled their minds.”
A spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs office, the Chinese government agency that deals with the two cities, denounced the airport violence in a statement Wednesday, calling it “conduct close to terrorism.”
Hong Kong police arrested five males, ages 17 to 28, on suspicion of unlawful assembly at the airport. Two were also held for allegedly assaulting a police officer and possession of offensive weapons.
On Wednesday morning, a few dozen protesters remained in the airport, sitting in an area designated for protests. Parts of the arrival halls were still covered with posters carrying their messages, which have focused in recent days on complaints about the police’s use of force.
“We are not rioters, we just love HK too much,” read one sign.