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HK protesters apologise as movement faces tipping point in battle for hearts and minds

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Anti-government protesters facing off with the police during clashes at the airport on Tuesday as the international travel hub ground to a near-halt for a second day.

Hong Kong

AFTER late-night mob scenes marred a demonstration that paralysed this city's airport, protesters on Wednesday 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. 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 on 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.

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The mood turned darker by nightfall after protesters seized two men - one a reporter for Chinese state media, another whom 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 towards the local government and police force in Hong Kong as a "colour revolution" and US-backed "terrorist" scheme instigated by a handful of radicals.

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."

In the afternoon, Claudia Mo, an opposition pro-democracy legislator whom 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?" she 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 Ms Mo, her tone turning conspiratorial as she floated the possibility that Beijing was engineering the escalation of tensions. "Could there have been agents provocateurs?" she said. "Were we played into a trap? We don't know all the details yet."

She later said that she did not believe that Beijing would send in armed forces to quell the uprising. But after what happened on Tuesday, she feared that 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 (56 km) 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, Mr 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 that Mr 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 such as 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. WP