File image: People watch protesters marching past a shopping mall in Sha Tin District in Hong Kong. Image Credit: AP

Hong Kong’s airport is one of the busiest in the world. On Monday and Tuesday, protesters effectively shut it down with sit-ins that forced officials to take the extraordinary step of cancelling flights.

The fresh action has catapulted Hong Kong’s months-long protest movement into uncharted territory amid growing concern that China will take a more active stand to quell the unrest.

The airport occupation followed a violent crack down by Hong Kong police on demonstrators Sunday night, triggering fresh outrage toward authorities.

Here are some key questions, answered.

Q: Why did the protests start?

A: Protests kicked off in June over concerns that Hong Kong was set to pass a bill that would allow individuals to be extradited to China. Since the British handover in 1997, Hong Kong and China have been party to a “one country, two systems” agreement that offers residents of Hong Kong a greater degree of independence than they would have in China.

Those who opposed the bill said it jeopardised Hong Kong’s semiautonomy from China and, if passed, would endanger Hong Kong-based critics of Beijing, who could suddenly find themselves facing the Chinese legal system, where human rights groups have documented arbitrary detention and torture.

Hong Kong officials initially defended the bill, saying it would protect Hong Kong from criminals fleeing legal systems elsewhere. And Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam insisted the bill would not apply to issues of free speech. But protesters were unconvinced.

As The Washington Post reported in July, the protests have since grown to embody “a widespread sentiment that the territory’s government does not work for its people and exists to advance an agenda set by Beijing.”

The movement now has five key demands for Hong Kong’s government: to withdraw the extradition bill; to officially retract descriptions of the protests as a “riot;” to drop charges against protesters; to launch an investigation into police force during the protests; and “universal suffrage,” which would allow Hong Kong voters to directly pick their leaders rather than the current process that includes Beijing’s involvement.

Q: How much have the protests escalated?

A: In early June, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest. Police then responded with force, using tear gas and batons to disperse the crowds. The response inspired more protests. In mid-June, 2 million people are believed to have joined the streets for what was probably the largest protest in Hong Kong’s history.

Police altered routes that protesters were cleared to use after protests escalated, and some demonstrators vandalised the Hong Kong legislature, shattering windows and tearing down photos of pro-Beijing officials in early July. Those violent incidents signalled the possibility of a dramatic shift in the intensity of the movement.

In late July, more than 1,000 protesters gathered in the airport, warning travellers they were not safe in Hong Kong. Early this month, thousands of people took to the streets for yet another rally — the first in which civil servants joined as an organised bloc, shouting, “Hong Kongers, fight on! Civil servants, fight on!”

On August 5, a strike shut down much of the city, with disruptions to public transit and airline operations.

As The Post reported from Hong Kong, “even the happiest place on Earth was not immune: Dozens of workers at Hong Kong Disneyland went on strike, disrupting rides.”

The latest airport strike is expected to further escalate tensions between protesters and the government.

Seated on the airport’s floor Friday, protesters sang a rendition of ‘Do You Hear the People Sing?,’ the revolutionary anthem from the musical ‘Les Misrables.’ In the production, the song serves as a rallying cry for rebel students in the streets of Paris during the 1832 uprising. China has censored the track.

On Saturday, demonstrators went ahead with planned marches despite a ban. Police responded by firing tear gas at some protesters.

Q: How did Hong Kong’s government respond?

A: In July, Lam partly backed down from the extradition bill, saying it “is dead.” That terminology wasn’t enough for protesters who accused her of using “wordplay” to trick listeners into thinking the bill was formally withdrawn. At the time, prominent student activist Joshua Wong said calling the bill “dead” was a “lie to the people of Hong Kong.”

In June, as protests escalated, demonstrators called for Lam to step down. But she has stood her ground with backing from Beijing. Late last month, dozens of protesters charged with rioting appeared in court, where they faced sentences of up to 10 years in prison for rioting. They were all granted bail.

Lam went weeks without appearing in public, but last week, she re-emerged, telling reporters that Hong Kong had to “set aside differences and bring back order and say no to chaos and violence.”

She also said protesters were trying to “topple Hong Kong” and that she has met with dozens of business leaders who have expressed serious concerns that the protests could spark a major economic downfall there.

Amid the airport occupation this week, Lam warned the city risked being “pushed into an abyss.”

Q: How has China responded?

A: China has stood firm behind Lam. And in late July, a military spokesman said that, if Hong Kong officials requested it, China would mobilise People’s Liberation Army troops to restore order to the city. On Monday, that prospect began to appear more likely. The nationalist Global Times tabloid tweeted that the People’s Armed Police, a Chinese paramilitary unit, is assembling armoured personnel carriers near Shenzhen, a city bordering Hong Kong.

Last month, dozens of men carrying Chinese flags beat antigovernment protesters with clubs in Hong Kong, leaving at least 45 people hospitalised.

The perpetrators were believed to belong to mafia-like groups known as “triads,” although experts cautioned there was no evidence Chinese officials ordered the gangs to attack.

“Hong Kong is now facing the most severe situation since its handover,” Zhang Xiaoming, one of the most senior Chinese officials overseeing Hong Kong affairs, said last week.

On Monday, Yang Guang, the head of the Chinese Cabinet’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs office, described the protests in Hong Kong as “terrorism” for the first time.

“We should relentlessly crack down on such violent criminal acts without mercy, and we firmly support Hong Kong police and judicial authorities in bringing the criminals to justice as soon as possible,” he said.

Communist Party-backed media outlets in China have repeatedly suggested the United States is playing a covert role in the protests, and on Friday, a pro-Beijing newspaper published personal information about a US diplomat, Julie Eadeh, who was photographed meeting opposition activists in a hotel.

The State Department said the publication of Eadeh’s private information was the behaviour of a “thuggish regime.”

Q: What does the United States have to say about all this?

A: After the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Washington “owes the world an explanation” about its role in Hong Kong, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called claims that the United States is behind the protests “ludicrous.”

“I think the protests are solely the responsibility of the people of Hong Kong, and I think they are the ones that are demanding that their government listen to them and hear their voices,” Pompeo said.

Last week, the United States issued a travel warning for Hong Kong, advising visitors to avoid areas where protests could break out with little notice.