Violence brings Hong Kong to ‘brink of total breakdown’: police

Violence brings Hong Kong to ‘brink of total breakdown’: police
By Kate Lamb and Josh Smith

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Police fired tear gas at pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong’s Central financial district and at demonstrators on the other side of the harbour on Tuesday as a senior officer said the unrest had brought the city to “the brink of total breakdown”.

The clashes took place a day after police shot a protester at close range and a man was doused with petrol and set on fire in some of the worst violence in the Chinese-ruled city in decades.

More than 1,000 protesters, many wearing office clothes and face masks, rallied in Central for a second day during lunch hour, blocking roads below some of the city’s tallest skyscrapers and most expensive real estate.

After they had dispersed, police fired tear gas at the remaining protesters on old, narrow Pedder Street. Police made more than a dozen arrests, many pinned up on the pavement against the wall of luxury jeweller Tiffany & Co.

Police said masked “rioters” had committed “insane” acts, throwing trash, bicycles and other debris on to metro tracks and overhead power lines, paralysing transport in the former British colony. TV footage showed activists dropping heavy objects from overpasses on to traffic below, just missing a motorcyclist.

“Our society has been pushed to the brink of a total breakdown,” Senior Superintendent Kong Wing-cheung told a briefing, referring to the last two days of violence

The demonstrators have been protesting since June against what they believe to be meddling by Beijing in the freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula put in place when the territory returned to China from British rule in 1997. Tough police tactics in response to the unrest have also fuelled anger.

China denies interfering and has blamed Western countries including Britain and the United States for stirring up trouble.

STUDENTS DEMONSTRATE

As well as the protests in Central, the heart of the Asian financial hub on Hong Kong island, clashes also erupted in several places on the mainland.

Police fired tear gas at City University in Kowloon Tong and at Chinese University in the New Territories, where protesters threw petrol bombs and bricks at police.

Students in hard hats and gas masks had since morning been barricading City University. Activists, who had home-made shields, stockpiled bricks and petrol and nail bombs on bridges and other approaches.

They overran the campus and smashed up the adjacent Festival Walk shopping mall and set fires, including to a big Christmas tree.

Streets inside and outside the Chinese University campus entrance were littered with bricks, other debris and street fires as police tackled protesters to the ground.

The students were taking part in a heated exchange with the principal when clashes reignited, with police again firing volleys of tear gas and protesters throwing petrol bombs.

Protesters also threw petrol bombs from an overpass on to the highway linking the Northern New Territories with Kowloon, bringing traffic to a standstill in a haze of tear gas smoke.

Several students were wounded in the violence.

Police also fired tear gas in the town of Tai Po, where a truck was set on fire, and in the densely populated Kowloon district of Mong Kok, whose shopping artery Nathan Road has been the scene of many clashes.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said protesters were being selfish and she hoped that universities and schools would urge students not to take part in the demonstrations.

More than 260 people were arrested on Monday, police said, bringing the total number to more than 3,000 since the protests escalated in June. Schools and universities said they would close again on Tuesday.

DEADLY FORCE

The United States on Monday condemned “unjustified use of deadly force” in Hong Kong and urged police and civilians alike to de-escalate the situation.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang urged Britain and the United States not to intrude, saying: “Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs that allow no foreign interference.”

China has a garrison of up to 12,000 troops in Hong Kong who have kept to barracks since 1997 but it has said it will crush any attempts at independence, a demand for a small minority of protesters.

Geng also said the Chinese government firmly supported Lam’s administration and the Hong Kong police in maintaining order and protecting citizens’ safety.

Yang Guang, spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said China condemned the dousing of the man with petrol and setting him on fire. He demanded that the person responsible be arrested as soon as possible.

Following Tuesday’s violence, the Hong Kong Jockey Club said all off-course betting centres would be closed ahead of Wednesday’s racing at Happy Valley, to ensure the safety of our employees and customers.

(Reporting by Donny Kwok, Clare Jim, Marius Zaharia, Twinnie Siu, Clare Jim, Meg Shen, Josh Smith, Kate Lamb, Jessie Pang and Farah Master in Hong Kong and Cate Cadell in Beijing; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Masked Hong Kong students chant at graduation amid fears for elections

Masked Hong Kong students chant at graduation amid fears for elections
By Sarah Wu and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong students, many wearing banned black masks, chanted slogans at their graduation at the Chinese University on Thursday, with some holding up banners urging “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now”.

The students defied a ban on masks that the government imposed last month in a bid to curb sometimes violent unrest that has rocked the Chinese-ruled city for more than five months.

Dressed in formal graduation gowns, many of about 1,000 students chanted as they walked to the hill-top ceremony, near the New Territories town of Sha Tin, calling for the government to respond to protesters’ “five demands, not one less” that include universal suffrage in choosing the city’s leader.

A man singing the Chinese national anthem and holding a knife during the graduation ceremony was taken away by security officers.

The protests started over a now-scrapped extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but have evolved into calls for democracy, an end to Chinese meddling in the city’s promised freedoms and an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, among other things.

“Even though we are all exhausted, we should not give up,” said Kelvin, a 22-year-old information engineering graduate.

The university said it cut the ceremony short after the degrees were handed out.

The months of protests have plunged the former British colony into its biggest crisis in decades, with no sign the demonstrators plan to give up.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula, allowing it colonial freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent judiciary and right to protest.

China denies interfering in Hong Kong has blamed Western countries for stirring up trouble.

About 100 people, including candidates running in Nov. 24 district council elections, the lowest tier of voting, marched against violence on Thursday.

SAFE AND FAIR?

A man stabbed and wounded pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho on Wednesday. Jimmy Sham, a leader of Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front, was beaten by men with hammers in October after his group organized mass rallies against the extradition bill.

Pro-democracy district councilor Andrew Chiu had part of his ear bitten off by a knife-wielding man on Sunday.

District council candidate Clement Woo, who joined the march, said members of the pro-establishment camp had experienced violence and intimidation.

“How can the election be a fair one if the atmosphere is like this?” Woo told Reuters. “We support democracy in Hong Kong, but democracy is incomplete without safety and fairness.”

Executive Councilor Ip Kwok-him, speaking on RTHK radio, expressed doubts as to whether election campaigning could continue in a fair and peaceful manner. He suggested the government decide by Nov. 17 if the elections should go ahead.

China has offered the “one country, two systems” formula for self-ruled Taiwan, an island Beijing considers a breakaway province.

The unrest in Hong Kong had provided a lesson for Taiwan, its foreign minister, Joseph Wu, told Reuters in Taipei.

“People here understand that there’s something wrong (with)the way the ‘one country, two systems’ model is run in Hong Kong … Taiwan people don’t like to be in the same situation,” Wu said.

The unrest has helped push Hong Kong’s economy into recession for the first time in a decade. Retail and tourism sectors have been hit particularly hard as tourists stay away.

UNICEF Hong Kong called off its annual Run for Every Child charity road run on Nov. 24 “due to a range of ongoing and uncertain factors”.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Sarah Wu, Jiraporn Kuhakan and Twinnie Siu in Hong Kong and Yimou Lee and Fabian Hamacher in Taipei; Writing by Farah Master and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Domestic online interference mars global elections: report

Domestic online interference mars global elections: report
By Elizabeth Culliford

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Domestic governments and local actors engaged in online interference in efforts to influence 26 of 30 national elections studied by a democracy watchdog over the past year, according to a report released on Monday.

Freedom House, which is partly funded by the U.S. government, said that internet-based election interference has become “an essential strategy” for those seeking to disrupt democracy.

Disinformation and propaganda were the most popular tools used, the group said in its annual report. Domestic state and partisan actors used online networks to spread conspiracy theories and misleading memes, often working in tandem with government-friendly media personalities and business figures, it said.

“Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship,” said Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.

“Authoritarians and populists around the globe are exploiting both human nature and computer algorithms to conquer the ballot box, running roughshod over rules designed to ensure free and fair elections.”

Some of those seeking to manipulate elections had evolved tactics to beat technology companies’ efforts to combat false and misleading news, the report said.

In the Philippines, for example, it said candidates paid social media “micro-influencers” to promote their campaigns on Facebook Inc, Twitter Inc.  and Instagram, where they peppered political endorsements among popular culture content.

Online disinformation was prevalent in the United States around major political events, such as the November 2018 midterm elections and the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the report said.

Freedom House also found a rise in the number of governments enlisting bots and fake accounts to surreptitiously shape online opinions and harass opponents, with such behavior found in 38 of the 65 countries covered in the report.

Social media was also being increasingly used for mass surveillance, with authorities in at least 40 countries instituting advanced social media monitoring programs.

China was ranked as the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom for a fourth consecutive year, after it enhanced information controls in the face of anti-government protests in Hong Kong and ahead of the 30th anniversary of Tiananmen Square.

For instance, Beijing blocked individual accounts on WeChat for “deviant” behavior, which encouraged self-censorship, the report said.

The Philippine and Chinese embassies in Washington, D.C., did not immediately respond to requests for comment outside of normal business hours.

(Reporting by Elizabeth Culliford; editing by Richard Pullin)

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong protesters plead for U.S. help

By John Ruwitch and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of mostly young pro-democracy activists rallied in Hong Kong on Monday in the first legal protest since the introduction of colonial-era emergency laws and pleaded for help from the United States.

They chanted “Fight for Freedom, Fight for Hong Kong” as they gathered peacefully near central government offices in the Admiralty district of the Chinese-ruled city only hours after police said violent protests had escalated to a “life-threatening level”.

A small bomb exploded and a policeman was stabbed on Sunday night, the latest violence in four months of unrest in which police have responded to petrol bombs and rocks with tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon and sometimes live rounds.

Emergency laws introduced on Oct. 5 banning face masks at rallies and carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail sparked some of the worst violence since the unrest started.

On Monday night, many protesters wore face masks in defiance of the ban.

Speakers urged the United States to pass a Hong Kong human rights act to ensure democracy for the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

“Make Hong Kong Great Again”, read one poster. Some protesters waved the U.S. flag and carried “Uncle Sam” recruitment posters reading “Fight for Freedom, Stand with HK”.

“All of the Hong Kong people feel hopeless and the government hasn’t listened to our voices so we need the USA to help us,” said protester Edward Fong, 28.

The protesters are angry at what they see as Beijing’s tightening grip on the city which was guaranteed 50 years of freedoms under the “one country, two systems” formula under which it returned to China. Beijing rejects the charge and accuses Western countries, especially the United States and Britain, of stirring up trouble.

The unrest poses the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012. He warned that any attempt to divide China would be crushed.

“Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones,” Xi said in a meeting on Sunday with leaders in Nepal, where he was visiting, according to China’s state broadcaster CCTV.

‘THEY ARE RIOTERS, CRIMINALS’

In contrast to Monday night’s peaceful protest, rallies descended into chaos on Sunday with running skirmishes between protesters and police in shopping malls and on the streets.

Black-clad activists threw 20 petrol bombs at one police station, while others trashed shops and metro stations.

A crude explosive device, which police said was similar to those used in “terrorist attacks”, was remotely detonated as a police car drove past and officers were clearing roadblocks on Sunday night.

A police officer also had his neck slashed by a protester.

“Violence against police has reached a life-threatening level,” said Deputy Commissioner of Police Tang Ping-keung.

“They are not protesters, they are rioters and criminals. Whatever cause they are fighting for it never justifies such violence.”

Protests have attracted millions of people but have gradually become smaller in recent weeks. Yet violence by hardcore activists has risen, prompting debate over tactics. But they say they remained united.

“Violence is always undesirable, but in the case of Hong Kong, we have no other option,” said regular protester Jackson Chan, 21.

“In June, 2 million took to the street and demonstrated peacefully, yet the government showed a complete disregard to the public opinion… Escalation of violence is inevitable,” Chan said.

On Monday, speakers called on U.S. senators to vote for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, saying it would be their “most powerful weapon”.

The bill supports human rights in Hong Kong with measures under consideration such as annual reviews of its special economic status and sanctions on those who undermine its autonomy. The text will not be finalised until it passes both houses of Congress and is signed by the president.

“We are exhausted and scared, many of us have been detained and tortured… We believe international help will come one day,” said one speaker.

Police have fired thousands of rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets at brick- and petrol bomb-throwing protesters and arrested more than 2,300 people since June, many teenagers. Two people have been shot and wounded.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam is due to deliver her annual Policy Address on Wednesday amid pressure to restore confidence in the government.

Hong Kong is facing its first recession in a decade because of the protests, with tourism and retail hardest hit.

(Additional reporting by Anne Marie Roantree and Donny Kwok in Hong Kong; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

Hong Kong office workers, schoolmates denounce police shooting of teen

By Clare Jim and Yiming Woo

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong office workers and high-school students turned out in their hundreds under a sweltering midday sun on Wednesday to denounce a policeman for shooting and wounding a teenager during the most violent clashes in nearly four months of unrest.

The office workers marched to Chater Garden in the Central business district as the students, some in the same class as the wounded 18-year-old, demonstrated outside his New Territories school.

More than 100 people were wounded during Tuesday’s turmoil, the Hospital Authority said, as anti-China demonstrators took to the streets across the Chinese-ruled territory, throwing petrol bombs and attacking police who responded with tear gas and water cannon. Five remained in a serious condition with 35 stable.

Thirty police were injured, with five in hospital.

During one clash, an officer shot an 18-year-old school student in the chest with a live round after coming under attack with a metal bar, video footage showed. The teen was in stable condition in hospital on Wednesday.

Protesters outside the wounded student’s school, the Tsuen Wan Public Ho Chuen Yiu Memorial College, chanted “Free Hong Kong”, condemned the police and urged a thorough investigation.

“(It’s) ridiculous, it can’t happen, and it should not be happening in Hong Kong,” said one 17-year-old who goes to the same school.

“It really disappointed me and let me down about the policeman. I don’t know why they took this action to deal with a Form Five student. Why do you need to shoot? It’s a real gun.”

Protesters have previously been hit with anti-riot bean-bags rounds and rubber bullets and officers have fired live rounds in the air, but this was the first time a demonstrator had been shot with a live round.

Police said the officer involved was under serious threat and acted in self-defense in accordance with official guidelines.

Police said they arrested 269 people – 178 males and 91 females – aged 12 to 71 during the Tuesday turmoil, while officers fired about 1,400 rounds of tear gas, 900 rubber bullets and six live rounds.

The protests, on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, were aimed at propelling the activists’ fight for greater democracy onto the international stage and embarrassing the city’s political leaders in Beijing.

The former British colony has been rocked by months of protests over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but have evolved into calls for democracy, among other demands.

The outpouring of opposition to the Beijing-backed government has plunged the city into its biggest political crisis in decades and poses the gravest popular challenge to President Xi Jinping since he came to power.

The pro-establishment Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong condemned Tuesday’s violence and urged the government to impose emergency laws to resolve the crisis.

‘CHILLING DISREGARD’

Many shops and business closed on Tuesday in anticipation of the violence, which is taking a growing toll on the city’s economy as it faces its first recession in a decade and the central government grapples with a U.S.-China trade war and a global slowdown.

Standard & Poor’s cut its Hong Kong economic growth forecast on Tuesday to 0.2 percent for this year, down from its forecast of 2.2 percent in July, blaming tension in the city for plunging retail sales and a sharp dip in tourism.

The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce condemned the violence.

“Extremists’ chilling disregard for the rule of law is not only affecting Hong Kong’s reputation as an international financial and business center, but also crippling many small businesses and threatening the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens,” it said in a statement.

The protesters come from wide-ranging backgrounds. Of 96 charged after violence on Sunday, eight were under 18, some were students, others had jobs ranging from waiter, teacher and surveyor to sales manager, construction worker and a hotel employee.

Protesters are angry about what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in their city’s affairs despite a promise of autonomy in the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong returned to China in 1997.

China dismisses accusations it is meddling and has accused foreign governments, including the United States and Britain, of stirring up anti-China sentiment.

The protesters are increasingly focusing their anger on mainland Chinese businesses and those with pro-Beijing links, daubing graffiti on store fronts and vandalizing outlets in the heart of the financial center.

The Bank of China (Hong Kong) said two of its branches came under attack on Tuesday.

“The bank expresses its deepest anger and strongly condemns this illegal, violent behavior,” it said in a statement.

(Reporting by Clare Jim and Yimin Woo; Additional reporting by Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Bill Rigby, Donny Kwok, Sumeet Chatterjee; Writing by Farah Master, Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Hong Kong government warns of great danger after weekend of violence

An anti-extradition bill protester throws a Molotov cocktail as protesters clash with riot police during a rally to demand democracy and political reforms, at Tsuen Wan, in Hong Kong, China August 25. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

By Twinnie Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Illegal violence is pushing Hong Kong to the brink of great danger, the city government said on Monday, after a weekend of clashes that included the first gun-shot and the arrest of 86 people, the youngest just 12.

Police fired water cannon and volleys of tear gas in running battles with protesters who threw bricks and petrol bombs on Sunday, the second day of weekend clashes in the Chinese-ruled city.

Six officers drew their pistols and one officer fired a warning shot into the air, police said in a statement, adding that 215 rounds of tear gas and 74 rubber bullets were fired over the two days.

“The escalating illegal and violent acts of radical protesters are not only outrageous, they also push Hong Kong to the verge of a very dangerous situation,” the government said in a statement.

The protests began in mid-June over a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong people to be sent to mainland China for trial.

But the demonstrations have evolved over 12 straight weeks into a broad demand for greater democracy in the financial hub that was promised a high degree of autonomy under a “one country, two systems” formula when it was handed to China by colonial ruler Britain in 1997.

More demonstrations are planned in the days and weeks ahead, including a rally at Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways <0293.HK> headquarters on Wednesday to protest against perceived “white terror”, a term used to describe anonymous acts that create a climate of fear.

Cathay has emerged as the biggest corporate casualty of the protests after China demanded it suspend staff involved in, or who supported, the anti-government demonstrations that have plunged the city into its biggest crisis since 1997.

On Saturday, activists threw petrol bombs and bricks in the gritty industrial district of Kwun Tong, on the east of the Kowloon peninsula. Some protesters cut down “smart” lamp posts equipped with surveillance cameras.

An anti-extradition bill protester carries a barricade for blocking the road during a protest in Hong Kong, China, August 25, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

An anti-extradition bill protester carries a barricade for blocking the road during a protest in Hong Kong, China, August 25, 2019. REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan

GRAVE CHALLENGE

The protests pose the gravest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he took power in 2012, with his government keen to quell the unrest ahead of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct 1.

Protesters again adopted cat-and-mouse tactics on Sunday evening, gathering then quickly dispersing, only to reappear in other places.

They also set up barricades to block some roads, following a largely peaceful rally earlier in the day.

Police said the 86 arrested people were aged 12 to 52, and they were suspected of offences including unlawful assembly, possession of offensive weapons and assaulting police officers.

Twenty-one officers were injured in the violence, they said.

The weekend clashes marked a return to violent unrest after days of calmer demonstrations.

The protests have occasionally caused serious disruption including forcing the closure of the airport.

China has denounced the protests, warned of the damage to Hong Kong’s economy and complained of outside interference.

It has also sent a clear warning that forceful intervention is possible, with paramilitary forces holding drills in Shenzhen, just over the border from Hong Kong in mainland China.The protesters say they are fighting the erosion of the “one country, two systems” arrangement under which Hong Kong returned to China with the promise of freedoms, not enjoyed on the mainland, for 50 years.

But the turmoil is taking a toll.

The world’s biggest equity deal this year was to unfold in Hong Kong later this month but it has been put on hold. Banks are issuing unprecedented profit warnings, while hotels and restaurants are half-empty.

Several major conferences and trade fairs have been postponed and economists say retail sales could drop by 20%-30% this year.

Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index <.HSI> closed down 1.9% on Monday, in line with regional markets, as the latest salvo in the Sino-U.S. trade war rattled investors.

(Reporting By Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok and Noah Sin; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

Hong Kong protesters offer apologies, China doubles down after airport clash

Police fire tear gas at anti-extradition bill protesters during clashes in Sham Shui Po in Hong Kong, China, August 14, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

By Marius Zaharia and Joyce Zhou

HONG KONG (Reuters) – China said on Wednesday Hong Kong’s protest movement had reached “near terrorism”, as more street clashes followed ugly scenes a day earlier at the airport where demonstrators set upon two men they suspected of being government sympathizers.

By nightfall, police and protesters were again clashing on the streets, with riot officers shooting tear gas almost immediately as their response to demonstrators toughens.

Flights resumed at Hong Kong airport, which is one of the world’s busiest, after two days of disruptions. Thousands of protesters have occupied the airport for days, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of departures on Monday and Tuesday.

Ten weeks of increasingly violent confrontation between police and protesters have plunged the city into its worst crisis since it reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing called the behavior at the airport no different to terrorism and said it must be severely punished.

“We’re deeply sorry about what happened yesterday,” read a banner held up by a group of a few dozen demonstrators in the airport arrivals hall in the morning.

“We were desperate and we made imperfect decisions. Please accept our apologies,” the banner said.

In chaotic scenes that would once have been unthinkable for Hong Kong, a peaceful sit-in at the airport turned violent late on Tuesday as protesters confronted and held a man they believed was an undercover Chinese agent.

Busloads of riot police arrived in response, clashing with furious demonstrators before withdrawing once the man was removed, and leaving the terminal briefly in control of activists who then detained a Chinese reporter for a short time.

It was not clear whether the scenes of violence might have eroded the broad support the movement has so far attracted in Hong Kong, a major financial hub. The protests have also hit the city’s faltering economy.

“We promise to reflect and to improve,” protesters said in one message distributed on social media app Telegram.

“Sorry, we were too reckless … we are only afraid of losing your support to the whole movement due to our mistake, and that you give up on fighting.”

They also showed little sign of relenting in their protests, which began in opposition to a now-suspended bill that would have allowed the extradition of suspects for trial in mainland China but have swelled into wider calls for democracy.

Hundreds attended a demonstration in the residential area of Sham Shui Po, where police arrived and quickly used tear gas after protesters pointed lasers at the police station.

‘SWORD OF THE LAW’

China used its strongest language yet after Tuesday’s incidents, when the protesters seized a reporter from China’s Global Times newspaper, a nationalistic tabloid run by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, and harassed the man they believed to be a mainland agent.

In addition to Beijing’s condemnation, the People’s Daily called for “using the sword of the law” to restore order, and mainland social media users lauded the detained reporter as a hero.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said during a visit to Toronto on Wednesday that all sides involved must ensure the situation does not escalate.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump described the volatile situation as “tricky”, and said China’s government had moved troops near the border with Hong Kong.

“I think it will work out and I hope it works out, for liberty. I hope it works out for everybody, including China,” he told reporters during a visit to Morristown, New Jersey.

Chinese police have assembled in the neighboring city of Shenzhen for what appeared to be exercises, the Global Times reported this week.

China also denied a request for two U.S. Navy warships to visit Hong Kong in the coming weeks, U.S. officials said, as a prominent U.S. senator, Ben Cardin, warned the territory could lose its special trade status if Beijing intervenes.

Under the “one country-two systems” arrangement, Hong Kong was guaranteed a high degree of autonomy and human rights after its handover to China.

AIRPORT REOPENED

Blood, debris and signs of the scuffle were scrubbed away during the night, and cleaners and protesters themselves removed anti-government posters from the walls of the airport, which was designed by renowned British architect Norman Foster.

Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific Airways said a total of 272 departures and arrivals had been canceled because of the disturbances, affecting more than 55,000 passengers.

China’s aviation regulator demanded last week that Cathay suspend personnel supporting protests in Hong Kong from staffing flights entering its airspace. On Wednesday, the carrier said it had fired two pilots.

Forward Keys, a flight data firm, said the crisis had driven a 4.7 percent fall in long-haul bookings to Hong Kong between June 16 and Aug. 9 compared with the same period last year.

“I think the local events clearly are having a profound impact, probably in ways that we haven’t necessarily clearly articulated yet,” Charles Li, chief executive of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange told reporters on Wednesday.

“This is not helpful,” he said “In a financial center, trust and confidence are important. In this regard we clearly need to sort this out, we need to work this out.”

Protesters vowed to press on.

“All the people here are very scared,” Ann, a 21-year-old teacher, told Reuters at the airport as she carefully took down anti-government posters, folding them for re-use.

“But we are more scared that we do not have our freedoms anymore, and so that is why we continue our protests,” she said.

“We feel that our ideas are bulletproof.”

(Reporting by Felix Tam, Tom Westbrook, Donny Kwok, Clare Jim, Twinnie Siu, Noah Sin, Brenda Goh, Tom Peter, Joyce Zhou, Tyrone Siu and Lukas Job in HONG KONG, Andrew Galbraith in SHANGHAI and Michelle Martin in BERLIN; Writing by Farah Master and Tom Westbrook; Editing by Tony Munroe, Darren Schuettler and Frances Kerry)

Taiwan president in U.S. after warning of threat from ‘overseas forces’

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen arrives at the hotel where she is supposed to stay during her visit in the Manhattan borough of New York, New York, U.S., July 11, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

By Michelle Nichols and Carlo Allegri

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen arrived in the United States on Thursday on a trip that has angered Beijing, warning that democracy must be defended and that the island faced threats from “overseas forces,” in a veiled reference to China.

China, which claims self-ruled and democratic Taiwan as its own and views it as a wayward province, had called on the United States not to allow Tsai to transit there on her overseas tour.

Tsai is spending four nights in the United States – two on the first leg and two on the way back from a visit to four Caribbean allies. She began her trip in New York and is expected to stop in Denver on her way back.

Shortly before Tsai was due to arrive at her Manhattan hotel, a Reuters photographer witnessed a brawl at the hotel’s entrance between dozens of pro-China and pro-Taiwan protesters, which was eventually broken up by police.

The New York Police Department was not immediately able to comment on whether there had been any arrests.

Tsai was last in the United States in March, but her stops this time will be unusually long, as normally she spends just a night at a time in transit.

The U.S. State Department has said there had been no change in the U.S. “one-China” policy, under which Washington officially recognizes Beijing and not Taipei, while assisting Taiwan.

However, analysts said the extended stopovers served to emphasize the Trump administration’s support for Tsai at a time when she has been coming under increasing pressure from Beijing, a major U.S. security rival with which Washington has been engaged in a year-long trade war.

Speaking before departure at Taipei’s main international airport at Taoyuan, Tsai said she would share the values of freedom and transparency with Taiwan’s allies, and was looking forward to finding more international space for Taiwan.

“Our democracy has not come easily and is now facing threats and infiltration from overseas forces,” Tsai said, without being specific.

“These challenges are also common challenges faced by democracies all over the world,” she said. “We will work with countries with similar ideas to ensure the stability of the democratic system.”

CARIBBEAN STOPS

Taiwan has been trying to shore up its diplomatic alliances amid pressure from China. Taipei now counts only 17 countries as diplomatic allies, almost all small Central American, Caribbean or Pacific nations.

Tsai will be visiting St Vincent and the Grenadines, St Lucia, St Kitts and Nevis, and Haiti on her overseas tour.

In New York, Tsai will meet with members of the Taiwanese community and U.N. ambassadors of allied countries.

The State Department described Tsai’s visit as “private and unofficial” and said she would be greeted in New York by James Moriarty, chairman of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. embassy in Taipei. It did not respond when asked if Tsai would have contact with any other U.S. officials.

Seeking to bolster Taiwan’s defenses, the United States this week approved an arms sale worth an estimated $2.2 billion for Taiwan, despite Chinese criticism.

Tsai, who is up for re-election in January, has repeatedly called for international support to defend Taiwan’s democracy in the face of Chinese threats. Beijing has regularly sent military aircraft and ships to circle Taiwan on drills in the past few years.

Douglas Paal, who served as U.S. representative to Taiwan from 2002 to 2006, said Tsai’s extended stopovers showed U.S. approval for the “caution and restraint” she had shown in her dealings with Beijing.

“It makes sense to reinforce that with generous transit treatment,” he said. “This is also … a message to China. The U.S. government believes Tsai is behaving responsibly in respecting the framework of U.S.-China-Taiwan relations.”

Paal said the Trump administration had yet to indicate a significant shift in the traditional U.S. approach to Taiwan, but this could change in the event of a deterioration of U.S. relations with Beijing.

“It’s like an engine running at a high idle,” he said. “Trump has not engaged the gears, but there is a lot of activity at lower levels seeking to upgrade relations. So change has not occurred in a big way yet, but it could happen at any time. With unpredictable consequences.”

(Reporting by I-Hwa Cheng; Additional reporting by Yimou Lee in Taipei and David Brunnstrom in Washington; writing by Ben Blanchard; editing by Leslie Adler and James Dalgleish)

Israelis go to polls to decide on Netanyahu’s record reign

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote with his wife Sara during Israel's parliamentary election in Jerusalem April 9, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via REUTERS

By Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis began voting on Tuesday in an election that could hand right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a record fifth term or see him dethroned by an ex-general who has pledged clean government and social cohesion.

During the campaign leading up to polling day, the rival parties waged a vitriolic online battle, accusing each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.

Netanyahu’s closest rival in the campaign was Benny Gantz, a former chief of the armed forces. Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, which includes other former generals, has challenged Netanyahu’s hitherto unrivalled national security credentials.

After an election eve visit to the Western Wall, Netanyahu, 69, voted at a polling station in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning, accompanied by his wife, Sara.

“This is truly the essence of democracy and we should be blessed with it,” he said, shaking hands with election officials and posing for selfies. “With God’s help the State of Israel will prevail. Thank you very much. Go to vote.”

Casting his vote in Rosh Ha’ayin near Tel Aviv, Gantz, 59, said: “This is a day of hope, a day of unity. I look into everyone’s eyes and know that we can connect.”

After the election, Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, will consult the leaders of every party represented in the Knesset and select the person he believes has the best chance of forming a government.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) across the country and will close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT).

But the victor may not be decided immediately. No party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament, meaning days or even weeks of coalition negotiations lie ahead.

One factor may be the turnout of voters from Israel’s 21 percent Arab minority. Many were angered by Israel’s nation-state law, passed in 2018, which declared that only Jews have the right of self-determination in the country. Netanyahu supported the legislation.

Voting in a predominantly Arab neighborhood in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, Arab legislator Ayman Odeh, who heads the Hadash party, said that engagement was key to bringing about political changes that would benefit the Arab community.

“We have to vote … we need to come in droves by train, bus, car and any other way to vote and make a crucial contribution to topple the right-wing government, and especially Benjamin Netanyahu,” he said.

“It is very important that Arabs vote for the party that represents their values 100 percent, not 80 or 40 percent like other parties,” he said. Some Arabs have indicated they will vote for left-wing or centrist Israeli parties instead of party lists dominated by Arab candidates.

According to figures released by Israel&rsquo;s Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel&rsquo;s roughly 9 million population included 1.9 million Arabs at the start of 2019. Most were Muslims, Christians or Druze. Jews made up 74.3 percent of the population.

OPINION DIVIDED

Voting at a polling station in Rosh Ha’ayin near Tel Aviv, gynecologist Yaron Zalel, 64, said he supported Gantz.

“Netanyahu did a lot of great things for Israel, really, a lot of great things. But he is 13 years in power and enough is enough,” he said.

“He has had enough, he did enough. Now when he feels his earth, the political earth, is shaking, he is destroying everything. This has to be stopped. I am here for my kids and the next generations. There is no one who can’t be replaced.”

Backing Netanyahu was another voter at the same polling station, Avi Gur, 65, a lecturer at Ariel University in a settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“Very excited, very excited. I hope that rightism will win,” he said, adding that the Likud leader was “the best prime minister there has ever been” in Israel.

“We are leading in high tech, we are leading in security, we are leading in the economy now. That’s good.”

In Jerusalem, Ronza Barakat, a librarian belonging to Israel’s Arab minority, said she backed the left-wing Meretz party.

“I voted for them hoping for change, a change in the racism that exists here,” she said. “We live together in a place of peace, why should hate exist between people?”

With little policy daylight between the two main candidates on issues such as Iran and relations with the Palestinians, much of the voting will be guided by judgments on character and personality.

CAMPAIGN RHETORIC

Netanyahu casts himself as the victim of media bias and judicial overreach, Gantz as a salve for Israel’s religiously and ethnically riven society and its ties with liberal Jews abroad.

But the distinctions between the leading parties in Israel were not as clear as they were in past decades, said Nabil Shaath, a veteran adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“There were times when elections were important,” he said on Monday. “But now, what are you talking about? It’s the right, and then further to the right and then the extreme right and then further to the extreme right. There is really no left left in Israel.”

(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Rosh Ha’ayin; Ron Bousso and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad in Haifa; Rahaf Ruby and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem; Editing by Larry King)

Colombia rejects Russia warning against Venezuelan military action

Colombian President Ivan Duque speaks during the presentation of a security report, accompanied by the military commands in the presidential palace, in Bogota, Colombia April 2, 2019. Courtesy of Colombian Presidency/Handout via REUTERS

BOGOTA (Reuters) – Colombia on Tuesday rejected a Russian warning against foreign military intervention in Venezuela and said it supported a peaceful transition to democracy in the neighboring South American country.

“Colombia reiterates that the transition to democracy must be conducted by the Venezuelans themselves peacefully and within the framework of the Constitution and international law, supported by political and diplomatic means, without the use of force,” Colombian Foreign Minister Carlos Holmes Trujillo said in a statement.

He was responding to a March 28 letter from the upper house of Russia’s parliament, forwarded to Colombia’s Congress by Russian Ambassador Sergei Koshkin, that said the “illegitimate use of military force against Venezuela by other states that support the opposition will be interpreted … as an act of aggression against a sovereign state.”

Russia has emerged as a staunch backer of Venezuela’s leftist President Nicolas Maduro as his nation descended into political turmoil this year. The United States and dozens of other nations have backed opposition leader Juan Guaido, who invoked the constitution to assume Venezuela’s interim presidency in January, arguing that Maduro’s 2018 re-election was illegitimate.

Colombia, which supports Guaido, has repeatedly denied it has any intention of launching a military offensive across its border with Venezuela.

But in his statement on Tuesday, Trujillo said military support for Maduro’s socialist government risked harming the transition to democracy while threatening regional peace and security.

The March touchdown near Caracas of two Russian air force planes carrying some 100 Russian special forces and cyber-security personnel has raised international concerns about Moscow’s backing for Maduro.

Russia, which has supplied fighter jets, tanks, and air defense systems to Venezuela, has dismissed U.S. criticism of its military cooperation with Caracas saying it is not interfering in the Latin American country’s internal affairs and poses no threat to regional stability.

Colombia acted as a staging ground in February as the United States and other countries supported Guaido’s effort to transport hundreds of tons of humanitarian aid into Venezuela. Maduro, who dismisses Guaido as a U.S. puppet, blocked the aid and Venezuelan troops pushed back protesters with tear gas.

Millions of Venezuelans have fled to Colombia to escape widespread food and medicine shortages in their chaotic homeland, seeking jobs locally and passage into other Latin American countries.

(Reporting by Helen Murphy; Editing by Julia Symmes Cobb and Tom Brown)