China on Saturday revoked the travel permits of three leaders of Hong Kong's six-week-long pro-democracy movement, effectively denying them permission to board a plane to Beijing in a bid to speak to leaders of the ruling Chinese Communist Party about their demands for free elections.
Alex Chow, leader of the influential Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) and two fellow HKFS activists, Eason Chung and Nathan Law, were unable to board the Cathay Pacific flight at Hong Kong's International Airport.
"Airline officials informed [them] they did not have the required travel documents to get on the plane," Lester Shum, deputy secretary general of HKFS, told reporters.
A Cathay Pacific staff member told the three students that their travel passes—issued to citizens of Hong Kong and Macau wishing to cross the internal border into mainland China—had been canceled, footage aired by Hong Kong's Cable TV showed.
"We have received information from relevant departments on the mainland that the Home Return Permits of the passengers in question have been canceled," the staff member said.
The three had booked on a flight departing Hong Kong at 3.00 p.m. local time, but were told their documents had been revoked after exiting Hong Kong and before entering China, Chow told Cable TV.
"The police asked us to come back into the exit hall to deal with our tickets," he said.
"After that, a staff member of the airline told us that our Home Return Permits had been revoked, and that they therefore couldn't issue us with boarding passes," Chow was quoted as saying on the broadcaster's website.
While the permits are available to all citizens of Hong Kong and Macau, China has previously denied entry to outspoken critics of Beijing who are carrying them.
The student leaders had gone to the airport amid large numbers of supporters of the Occupy Central movement, also known as the Umbrella Movement, waving yellow umbrellas and banners calling for "genuine free elections."
Call to explain
Chow told reporters before attempting to board the plane: "Dialogue is important for resolving the current situation, but it depends on whether Beijing has the initiative to start talks with the students."
After the failed bid to travel to Beijing, he called on the government to explain the cancellation of their permits.
"Perhaps the authorities really don't want to hear the voices of the next generation," Chow told Cable TV. "It seems as if the door to dialogue has been closed."
Hong Kong and mainland China operate separate immigration and border controls, under the terms of the city's 1997 return to Chinese rule.
Hong Kong immigration officials appeared to have played no part in preventing the student leaders from leaving the former British colony.
However, airlines generally check the immigration status of passengers before allowing them to board, under international aviation agreements and local legislation.
Vice-chairman of the League of Social Democrats Avery Ng, who was among the Occupy supporters at the airport on Saturday, said Beijing had sent a potentially dangerous message by denying entry to the three students.
"Hong Kong people will continue to feel great anger and frustration, and the pressure will continue to build up in the next few months," Ng warned.
"If Beijing continues with this hard-line attitude, social tensions in Hong Kong will reach breaking point."
And an unnamed Occupy protester said he had held out little hope for the Beijing trip, however.
"Initially I thought it was within the bounds of possibility, but later, when I saw that the pro-establishment didn't want to act as go-betweens, [I changed my mind]," the protester said.
"But it would have shown Beijing that people here in Hong Kong can stand up and speak rationally with them, neither servile nor aggressive."
Meanwhile, protest organizers on Saturday called on the Occupy Central movement to continue with nonviolent protest as a means to call for public nomination of candidates in 2017 elections for Hong Kong's chief executive.
China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), ruled on Aug. 31 that while all five million of Hong Kong's voters will cast a ballot in the poll, they will only be able to choose between two or three candidates pre-selected by Beijing.
Occupy protesters and pan-democratic politicians, who won 54 percent of the popular vote in the last legislative elections, have dismissed the proposed reform package as "fake universal suffrage."
Protesters have been encamped on three major highways and intersections since Sept. 28, when an initial bid to clear the area by police wielding tear gas and pepper spray failed.
However, Hong Kong's High Court has granted civil injunctions to transportation industry associations who are losing money from blocked bus and tram routes, and police have been authorized to prevent anyone from interfering with attempts to clear barricades around protest sites.
Clearance of the areas listed in the injunctions is expected to start next week.
Speaking after warnings from Hong Kong's police chief that protesters shouldn't interfere with the clearance operations, Occupy co-founder Benny Tai said police are trying to use the civil injunctions as an excuse to clear the Occupy protest camps.
"I hope that, when the clearance operations begin, Occupy protesters will still hold to the principle of nonviolence," he said.
"If the police were resolute about clearing the camps, then they would already have sufficient authority under [current law]," Tai told reporters.
"This is proof that the police and the Hong Kong government know that they have very limited power to deal with what is happening," he said.
The 'real' question
Hong Kong police commissioner Andy Tsang ducked questions on Saturday about whether police would resort to further force if protesters obstructed the removal of barricades.
"The real question here is, are the protesters prepared to abide by the law?" he told reporters.
"Or will they continue to pay no heed to the law, and to wreak havoc with Hong Kong's rule of law?"
Protesters have said repeatedly they won't leave until Beijing withdraws its Aug. 31 ruling, while others call for the resignation of embattled chief executive C.Y. Leung.
Hong Kong was promised a 'high degree of autonomy' and the preservation of traditional freedoms of speech and association under the terms of its 1997 handover from Britain to China.
Many Occupy protesters have said they aren't just fighting for public nominations, but against the steady erosion of the city's core values and freedoms.
Journalists' groups have hit out at a slew of recent attacks—physical and online—on pro-democracy media outlets and websites in recent months.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.