HONG KONG (WASHINGTON POST, AP) - After late-night mob scenes marred a demonstration that paralysed Hong Kong's international airport, protesters on Wednesday (Aug 14) issued apologies seeking the international public's sympathy and forgiveness as they fought to regain control over a narrative that seemed to be tilting in Beijing's favour for the first time in two months.
The appeals, which included apologies to the police force, come as the struggle over public opinion reaches a climax.
On Wednesday, the largely leaderless protest movement distributed several statements on social media appealing for forgiveness from international travellers, journalists and medical personnel at the scene.
Some even apologised to the police force, whose alleged brutality and refusal to apologise for its use of force in quelling street demonstrations had fuelled protesters' anger in the first place.
"After an entire night's reflection, we decided to bravely face our own shortcomings, and sincerely apologise to city residents that always supported us," one letter read. "To police who were affected last night, we will deeply reflect and confront our problems."
As flights resumed, protesters spread pamphlets and posters across the floor in a section of the airport's terminal but were not impeding travellers.
Dozens of protesters were also seen bowing in apology at the arrival hall, holding signs such as "sorry for the inconvenience, HK is sick", and "civil disobedience," RTHK reported.
Online, they circulated letters and promotional materials apologising to travellers 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."
While Hong Kong's protest movement has become steadily radicalised and fractured, the Chinese government has sharply ramped up a propaganda effort both in state media and on social networks to discredit and deflate a movement that to this point enjoyed wide support across Hong Kong society.
The international travel hub ground to a near-halt for a second day Tuesday after protesters assailing police brutality and government indifference occupied departure halls, sparking tense but largely peaceful confrontations with frustrated passengers, many of them stranded from all over the world.
The mood turned darker by nightfall after protesters seized two men - one a reporter for Chinese state media, another they claimed to be a Chinese government agent - and clashed with police and paramedics who tried to evacuate the pair.
At one point, protesters surrounded and kicked a police van, sparking hand-to-hand clashes with riot police who fired pepper spray near the departure terminal.
The scenes, unfolding under the glare of the media in one of the world's busiest airports, provided ample ammunition for a Chinese government that has dismissed the outpouring of anger toward the local government and police force in Hong Kong as a "color revolution" and US-backed "terrorist" scheme instigated by a handful of radicals.
On Wednesday afternoon, Claudia Mo, an opposition pro-democracy legislator who Beijing portrays as a mastermind behind the unrest, scolded the protesters for undermining their own cause by infuriating international travellers and sparking chaotic scenes at the transit hub.
"How would that actually help the Hong Kong cause?" Mo told reporters. "At a time when the protesters have been trying to garner support from the international community, you would be doing the opposite."
The movement was entering a "very, very scary" moment, said Mo, her tone turning conspiratorial as she floated the possibility that Beijing was engineering the escalation of tensions. "Could there have been agents provocateurs?" Mo said. "Were we played into a trap? We don't know all the details yet."
Mo later told The Post she did not believe Beijing would send in armed forces to quell the uprising. But after what happened Tuesday, she feared it might.
On Wednesday, a Chinese government spokesman referred to the airport chaos as "terrorism."
In a public post, a People's Liberation Army WeChat account called "The People's Front Line" noted that a nearby garrison in Shenzhen was only 35 miles from Hong Kong airport and that Chinese armed forces were obligated to respond to riots or terrorism.
Hours after a mob at the airport surrounded and beat Fu Baoguo, a Chinese man who was later identified as a reporter for the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper, Fu became seen as a martyr on Chinese social media.
The People's Daily, which owns Global Times, launched a meme called "I support the Hong Kong police, you can hit me now" - the words Fu apparently said before he was beaten.
The hashtag exploded in popularity and attracted over 300,000 replies on Weibo, China's Twitter-like service. The Communist Youth League and the official Xinhua News Agency organised announced a rally in support of Hong Kong police scheduled for this weekend on Tiananmen Square - a highly sensitive site in central Beijing where mass, independent political activities are unthinkable.
The latest salvos were part of a concerted effort to promulgate Beijing's message on the Hong Kong protests.
Shortly after violence erupted during protests in June, trolls flooded Twitter with thousands of pro-police and pro-China posts, said Fu King-wa, a professor who studies social media at the University of Hong Kong.
In more recent days, Chinese state outlets like the People's Daily have circulated fake news suggesting that a woman who was shot in the eye by police was in fact blinded by other protesters.
"Just last week, the narrative was about excessive police violence, but it's changing every day," Fu King-wa said. With the Global Times reporter now becoming a hero in mainland China, "it's become a full-on war of narratives," Fu said. "It's a pendulum swinging back and forth."
Divisions appeared to deepen within the youth movement as well.
For hours Tuesday evening, masked protesters argued over whether to allow passengers to board their flights and whether to tie the hands of the suspected Chinese spy or to release him.
At one point, a radical protester who confronted paramedics for helping the alleged spy was forcibly carried off by five others. After violence erupted near midnight, several young men embraced, bowed and apologised to an airport official who had been struck by a barrage of water bottles and debris flung by others.
The unrest roiling Hong Kong erupted in June over a now-shelved proposal to allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts.
The protest movement has since grown into calls for investigations into police violence against protesters, and resistance toward Beijing's encroachment on Hong Kong's autonomy.
Tuesday night's disruption and chaotic scenes may prove to be a tipping point in the battle for control of the narrative.
Speaking to reporters at Hong Kong's Legislative Council complex on Wednesday, a group of pro-Beijing lawmakers denounced the actions of protesters toward the two Chinese men in the airport terminal.
Some accepted the apologies offered up online, while others rejected them.
"There is no reason why they should receive such kind of physical attack and receive such kind of violence upon their bodies," said lawmaker Priscilla Leung, a critic of the anti-extradition Bill movement.
Leung added that it did not matter that protesters suspected that one of the men was an undercover police officer, "I don't buy those excuses to try to give any kind of reasons to put or to add different kinds of speculation."
"If, especially young people, are willing to admit that they have done something wrong that is better than they still think that they have been doing something very correctly," she said. "To give an apology is better than none."