HONG KONG — Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters’ plans to directly lobby the Chinese government failed on Saturday when three student leaders were prevented from boarding a flight to Beijing, where they had hoped to press officials to heed their calls for free elections.
The students’ proposal to talk directly with Prime Minister Li Keqiang and other officials had been certain to be rejected by the Chinese government, which has scorned the demonstrators as radical lawbreakers. But even in failure, their attempt to fly to the capital continued a battle of images and rhetoric that has pitted the protesters against the Hong Kong government and the central authorities in Beijing.
In the end, the three members of the Hong Kong Federation of Students – Alex Chow, Nathan Law and Eason Chung – did not even leave Hong Kong. The airline Cathay Pacific, whose subsidiary Dragonair operates the flight to Beijing that they planned to board, told them that the Chinese authorities had rescinded their entry permits, which Hong Kong residents need to go to mainland China, according to Lester Shum, another student leader. Mr. Shum told reporters at Hong Kong International Airport that a fourth, previously unannounced member of the delegation was also stopped.
Before the student leaders were turned away, the cavernous airport briefly became a stage for protesters supporting them, and for a few opponents. Dozens of cheering and singing supporters gathered in the airport’s departure area, many holding up yellow umbrellas, which have been an emblem of the protests since demonstrators used umbrellas to ward off police pepper spray.
“I’m mystified why a great country like China would dread students entering to request a dialogue with central officials,” Mr. Chow said at a news conference after the failed attempt to board the flight. “Public opinion in Hong Kong is clear, but the government has repeatedly avoided facing up to it.”
Earlier, the student federation had written an open letter to Mr. Li, the prime minister, who first rose in politics through Communist Party-controlled student organizations. “We believe that democracy is the aspiration not only of Hong Kong, but also of contemporary China,” the letter read. “We hope that you can hear directly the heartfelt wishes of hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong people.”
State-run news media in China, and Hong Kong newspapers loyal to Beijing, have ridiculed the attempt to fly to the capital as theater to gain public sympathy in Hong Kong, where roads in three parts of the city remain blocked by demonstrators who have occupied them since Sept. 28.
The Global Times, a popular Chinese tabloid that specializes in swipes at foes of the government, called the students’ attempted trip a “kurouji,” a Chinese term for a self-inflicted wound meant to bamboozle the enemy.
“This is playacting,” a commentary in the paper on Saturday read. “They would like nothing better then for these three to be detained in the mainland for a few days,” it read. “They’re hoping for an outpouring of sympathy from Hong Kong society over this.”
The demonstrators say that electoral reform plans for Hong Kong issued by the Chinese government betray promises that residents would win the right to vote freely for the city’s leader, or chief executive. Beijing’s plan gives it the power to effectively veto candidates it does not like, through a nomination committee that would be dominated by members loyal to the central government.
For weeks, the protesters and police officers have faced each other across street barricades, and there have been several flare-ups of confrontation, including arrests. But the authorities have so far held back from trying to clear the three protest sites: the biggest one in Admiralty, a district near the local government headquarters; a sometimes rowdy occupation in Mong Kok, a busy and crowded shopping area; and a smaller sit-in in Causeway Bay, a retail area usually thronged by tourists from mainland China.
But protest leaders have said that the impasse could soon end, after courts issued injunctions that would permit court bailiffs and the police to clear the Mong Kok occupation and a part of the protest site at Admiralty. On Saturday, the city’s High Court refused to hear protesters’ appeal of the injunction applying to Mong Kok.