ABOUT 300 supporters, some clutching the bright yellow umbrellas that have become a symbol of the democracy movement, showed up at Hong Kong airport where they greeted the trio like pop star heroes.
The focus of all their attention, Alex Chow, Eason Chung and Nathan Law. Wearing matching black and jade green pro-democracy T-shirts they looked every inch the travelling students. But even with hand luggage only, they were going nowhere.
The three from the Hong Kong Federation of Students had planned to fly to Beijing yesterday, determined to take their calls for greater democracy in determining who will run the former British colony than now on offer.
Chests puffed out the leader, Chow, made a speech using a hand-held megaphone to the waiting supporters outlining their hopes and aspirations.
If there were any nerves about heading into the dragon’s den, they hid them well. Perhaps they simply anticipated what would happen next.
Having trailed their intentions to ask for a showdown, with the world’s media assembled, their journey to seek an audience with Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang never even got off the ground. They couldn’t board.
A Cathay Pacific spokesman told local media that Chinese authorities had told the airline the students’ travel permits were invalid.
He did not elaborate. He didn’t need to.
Yvonne Leung, spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Federation of Students, told reporters that the trip had been scuppered on a technicality.
She said: “Cathay has confirmed that their return home card has been cancelled by the mainland authorities, so they could not get the required certificates to get on to the plane,”
The travel plans were grounded, but the media attention surrounding their bid gives the campaign a lift at a time when publicity, like the crowds still gathered around the streets of Hong Kong, is waning.
At the peak more than 100,000 student protesters defied the authorities with a show of defiance against a regime which, historically at least, has never been known for its patience towards dissenters. Now there are pockets of only a few hundred.
The student leaders left the airport shortly after, determined they said to try to get a place at the negotiating table again.
For more than six weeks now, they have been the leading movement camping out in some of the world’s most expensive real estate and paralysing parts of the financial centre, demanding free elections for the city’s leader in 2017.
The Hong Kong government has branded the movement’s occupation of streets illegal and has repeatedly said open nominations are not allowed under the city’s laws.
Many thought the student leaders would be turned back once they landed in Beijing. Others won’t be surprised they didn’t even get that far.
After all, China has refused entry before to activists who speak out against Beijing.
Beijing has already declared the protests illegal and insists law and order must be maintained in the Chinese-controlled city.
Scenes of police firing tear gas and violent clashes have grabbed global headlines, but so far the protesters haven’t quite gone away.
It’s something of a conundrum for China.
Leaders continue to run Hong Kong under a “one country, two systems” mantra that accords the city a degree of autonomy and freedom not enjoyed on mainland China.
But Beijing said in August only candidates screened by a nominating committee will be able to contest a city-wide vote to choose the next leader in 2017, triggering widespread condemnation and protests.
It is thought authorities are preparing to start clearing the key protest sites of Admiralty, which lies next to government buildings, and across the harbour in the bustling, gritty district of Mong Kok.
That could be as early as tomorrow, some say. The world can only watch and wait, to see if there are any unscheduled departures to follow.