When Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam appeared before the press on Tuesday, she appeared to be expecting to deliver a brief statement and move on. Instead she faced a media onslaught.
No sooner were her prepared remarks finished than the full-frontal assault – in both Cantonese and English – began.
“You blame your own political misjudgement on others, and refuse to acknowledge your mistakes,” one journalist said.
“When will you accept political responsibility to end citizens’ fear? . . . When will you be willing to step down? When will you tell the police to stop?” the reporter from Hong Kong’s public broadcaster RTHK asked.
Before Lam could respond, the reporter added an admonition: “You asked me in the past to take my job seriously, so please answer me seriously as well.”
The embattled Beijing-backed leader began to reply but more questions were shouted.
“Citizens are afraid of you and the police, can you answer the question?”
The combative press conference was an indication of the rising tensions in the city after a weekend of violence that left dozens of people with injuries, some of them serious.
Under the “one country, two systems” principle, the media in Hong Kong enjoys freedoms unheard of in mainland China. A broad spectrum of political leanings are represented, from fiesty independent elements to strongly pro-Beijing outlets.
Lam at times appeared caught off-guard by the intensity of the questioning, with reporters repeatedly interrupting her and accusing her of failing to respond.
“Please don’t interrupt,” an official pleaded as reporters shouted over Lam.
At one point she paused, looked down, and then looked up again at reporters with her eyebrows raised as they continued to fire questions at her.
At other moments, she sipped from a glass of water as the barrage of questions continued.
In her opening remarks she called for calm.
“I again ask everyone to put aside your differences and calm down,” Lam said, who appeared to be on the verge of tears at one point.
“Take a minute to think, look at our city, our home, do you all really want to see it pushed into an abyss?”
Lam defended the police against accusations of excessive force over the weekend, when rounds of tear gas were fired into subway stations and on crowded shopping streets.
She said she was “heartbroken” by reports of serious injuries, but offered no concessions to the demonstrators and insisted police were facing “extremely difficult circumstances”.
“This question has been answered,” she repeated as she was pressed on whether Beijing would allow her to fully withdraw a now-suspended bill allowing extradition to the mainland – a key protester demand.
And the barrage continued as she abruptly left the podium: “Do you have a conscience?” shouted one journalist.
“Mrs Lam, many citizens have been asking recently when you will die,” yelled another.
Meanwhile, hundreds of flights were cancelled or suspended at Hong Kong’s airport for a second day on Tuesday as pro-democracy protesters staged another hugely disruptive rally, defying warnings from the city’s leader who said they were heading down a “path of no return”.
The new protest came as Beijing also sent further ominous signals that the 10 weeks of unrest must end, with state-run media showing videos of security forces gathering across the border.
The crisis, which has seen millions of people take to the streets, was before this week already the biggest challenge to Chinese rule of the semi-autonomous city since its 1997 handover.
But the two days of protests at the airport, one of the busiest in the world, raised the stakes yet again.
All check-ins were cancelled on Tuesday afternoon after thousands of protesters wearing their signature black T-shirts made barricades using luggage trolleys to prevent passengers from passing through security gates.
“I want to shut down the airport just like yesterday so most of the departure flights will be cancelled,” a 21-year-old student who gave his surname as Kwok said.
On Monday a crowd that police said numbered 5,000 filled the building to denounce what they said were violent tactics by police in trying to quell weekend rallies.
Airport authorities in response cancelled all flights on Monday afternoon.
“Violence, no matter if it’s using violence or condoning violence, will push Hong Kong down a path of no return,” Lam told reporters.
“The situation in Hong Kong in the past week has made me very worried that we have reached this dangerous situation.”
But a few hours later the protesters returned to the airport chanting “Stand with Hong Kong, stand for freedom,” and daubing graffiti that included “an eye for an eye”.
This was in reference to a serious facial injury that reportedly caused a woman to lose the vision in one eye at a demonstration that turned violent on Sunday night.
Demonstrators accused police of causing the injury by firing a bean-bag round.
The protests began in opposition to a bill that would have allowed extraditions to the mainland, but quickly evolved into a broader bid to reverse a slide of rights and freedoms in the southern Chinese city.
On Tuesday Chinese state media upped the ante, calling protesters “mobsters”, warning they must never be appeased and raising the spectre of mainland security forces intervening.