HONG KONG -- Following two days of flight cancellations, the operator of Hong Kong International Airport has obtained a court injunction to stop protesters from blocking outbound passengers.
The demonstrators, who are demanding an inquiry into heavy-handed police tactics and other issues, brought one of the world's busiest air hubs to a virtual halt for much of Monday and Tuesday. The police intervened late Tuesday after protesters attacked two men they suspected of being undercover spies. The resulting violent clashes saw the police use pepper spray and batons.
Though flights resumed on Wednesday, it is unclear whether protesters will try to test the court injunction by again gathering in the terminal later in the day -- and if they do, how forcefully the police will try to restrain them.
As of early afternoon, there were several dozen apparent protesters sitting in the airport arrival hall with posters and banners criticizing the police and the government and appealing for visitors' support.
An older protester who said he had come to the airport several times in recent days said he would stay on unless someone came in person to officially deliver the court order. In any case, he said he would "make more noise peacefully and keep certain pressure on the government" to meet the demonstrators' demands.
Airport officials announced that as of 2 p.m., they would limit terminal access to staff and departing passengers ticketed for travel within 24 hours. Security posts are being set up outside the terminal and two parking decks closed. Meanwhile, flight information boards showed limited cancellations.
The demonstrations at the airport marked an escalation of the protesters' tactics. While they held protests there over the weekend and on previous days to call attention to their demands, this week saw them forcefully confront and block travelers from making their flights. Many of those affected were foreign visitors.
The blockade and the abuse of the two men risks a decrease in sympathy for the protest movement from the broader Hong Kong public, which has so far stuck with them to a large degree.
In a statement Wednesday morning, Airport Authority Hong Kong said the court order forbids anyone "from attending or participating in any demonstration or protest or public order event in the airport other than in the area designated by the Airport Authority" or "unlawfully and willfully obstructing or interfering" with airport operations.
The authority said it would soon publish the text of the court injunction.
U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday fed speculation that the Chinese military could intervene soon to suppress the protests, tweeting: "Our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!"
It was unclear though whether Trump was responding to classified reports or to Chinese state media reports that have highlighted movements and drills involving armed police and military units in Shenzhen, the mainland city adjacent to Hong Kong.
The Beijing-based Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office on Wednesday said that the anti-government protesters were no different to "terrorists," adding that extremely violent crimes must be severely punished in line with the law.
In a client note on Monday, Gavekal Research Chief Executive Louis-Vincent Gave played down speculation of Chinese intervention.
"Beijing may hope that by flexing a little military muscle, and so raising the stakes, it will help focus the minds of some of the demonstrators, and perhaps turn Hong Kong's middle class against them," he wrote. "China's leaders have a very obvious incentive to avoid bloodshed between now and Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China."
"The last thing Xi Jinping wants is a new Tiananmen massacre on the eve of what is supposed to be a party to trumpet the CCP's achievements," Gave wrote, in reference to the Chinese Communist Party.
A desire to avoid action that could prompt further U.S. technology restrictions or support the reelection of Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen would also hold back Beijing. Other analysts though see the upcoming anniversary as hastening a conclusion to the confrontation.
"While the current government policy is to wait out the protests, with military intervention as a last resort, there are reasons to believe that time is running out for this strategy to succeed," wrote political risk advisory service Argo Associates in a client note late Monday. "The Hong Kong government and the CCP will be keen to ensure that protests are completely under control" before Oct. 1, it said.
Broadly, however, analysts have faulted the Hong Kong government for relying on the police to respond to the political demands of the protesters.
Steve Vickers, a senior official with the Hong Kong police under British colonial rule, said in a note to clients of his risk consulting company that "the Hong Kong government's policy of 'waiting it out'... (was) not a viable option."
"In the long term, only a political solution, or an ugly and costly crackdown, will bring an end to this current predicament," he said.