Why Hongkongers Occupied the Airport Over a Single Suitcase
The sit-in at HKIA on Sunday shows the city's growing sensitivity to political bullying—and more backlash against CY Leung could follow.
On March 28, while waiting to board a flight to San Francisco, a young traveler realized that she had left a black carry-on bag outside the airport restricted area. It happens—people forget their luggage. They go back through another security check to retrieve it, or they make a scene.
But if they're the youngest daughter of Hong Kong’s top political figure, they call daddy—who tells the staffer on the line, in no uncertain terms: whatever baby wants, baby gets.
When Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying pulled a few strings for his daughter Leung Chung-yan that day, he kicked off a scandal—a small incident sparking yet more anger against a leader who's seen as bullying and out of touch. Three weeks after the incident, at least 1,000 protesters, including representatives from at least five different labor groups, political parties and regular, everyday civilians, staged a sit-in at the airport terminal. They came to challenge CY Leung after he denied using his clout to pressure airport staff to get Chung-yan’s bag back.
The first demonstrators at the airport on April 17 were from the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the organization that called for the protest. They had their brothers in arms with them, the Labour Party.
“It’s more risky to participate in airport protests than to demonstrate in a public place, and this protest serves as a test to see just how much space there is for future demonstrations.” —Law Yuk-kai, Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor
One protester, Alan Mac Ailbhe, counted in attendance the Civic Party, the Civic Passion, the League of Social Democrats, the People’s Power and other smaller non-partisan parties. A number of counter-protesters showed up, inciting no small amount of tension. “About 1,000 had probably planned on going,” says Ailbhe. “It started with 500 union members, and then it kept steamrolling.”
On Sunday, police say more than 1,000 had gathered; demonstrators estimate 2,500 were in attendance.
“It’s a very small incident, but the implications resulting from this incident are very important,” says Icarus Wong Ho-yin, co-founder of the Civil Human Rights Front. “People feel that there’s an erosion of Hong Kong’s values.”
Law Yuk-kai, director of the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, agrees. “There’s a hope that Hong Kong will be rescued from further deterioration. You can see the protest as a desperate attempt. People are willing to show their reluctance to political changes.”
Hell in a Handbag
The fractures in the bedrock of Hong Kong’s political system are apparent. Law and Icarus Wong are quick to mention the word “deterioration” when speaking about the future of the city’s politics. Occupy Central in 2014 and February’s bloody clash in Mong Kok both occurred on the global stage, the aftereffects echoing on front pages around the world. This time, a girl left her bag in a non-restricted zone, called her father—and a staff member retrieved it. That’s all. And yet many Hongkongers feel this alleged act of corruption is no less significant, even if it’s so low-level, because it continues to happen.
“This whole thing is a storm in a teacup,” says Jeffrey Herbert, a former senior superintendent with the Hong Kong Police Force. But “it is a very strong warning to officials in Hong Kong that abuse of power will not be tolerated.”
Icarus Wong says that “the concrete demand of the protest is to persuade the Chief Executive to admit what he did. I think he’ll just keep denying everything. This is a very typical case of abuse of power by powerful men.”
Patrick Wong Chun-chin, also a former senior superintendent of police, says that if the bag belonged to someone other than Chung-yan, Hong Kong wouldn’t have had nearly such a visceral reaction. He reasons that the airline might even be lauded for its actions, for example, in the case of a child or adolescent. “If the airline employee was a loving and caring individual, what would he do?”
Protesting at an airport is especially precarious—it’s a risky gamble for demonstrators. “The airport, unlike other public spaces, actually has bylaws that prohibit protesting, unless it’s authorized,” says Law. “It’s more risky to participate in airport protests than to demonstrate in a public place, and this protest serves as a test to see just how much space there is for future demonstrations.”
Herbert is skeptical that the protest accomplished anything political and Patrick Wong says the demonstration was aggravated by political parties who jumped on the protest bandwagon. But anger in the city is deepening. Democratic or not, this flare-up against perceived political bullying is just a signpost on the tumultuous road ahead for Hong Kong.
“The protests were a little over the top, for what amounts to a very minor misuse of authority,” says Herbert. “People are disgruntled. We are going to see more of this type of thing.”