Hong Kong crisis enters a new dimension

There is seemingly no stopping Hong Kong’s more extreme protesters. After a weekend that saw water cannons deployed and police firing live-round warning shots, questions are being asked across the city about how far these protests will go. 

There is no point to get into conjecture here about hidden forces that may or may not be at work on both sides. Scenes from the weekend were alarming, however, and the crisis seems to have crossed into a new dimension. Following the previous weekend’s large-scale but peaceful demonstrations, protesters this weekend were smaller in number but far more violent. They attacked police with petrol bombs from a distance but also charged them up close, wielding weapons that could easily maim or even kill. One policeman fired a warning shot in the air in fear of his life. A video of the incident shows clearly why.

It seems obvious by now that anti-riot troops assembled in Shenzhen will not be needed. This crisis is no longer about controlling large, unruly crowds. It is about managing attacks by small groups of people behaving as if they are in a guerrilla war. This is more alarming, because it dramatically raises the possibility of fatalities. Thankfully, there were none this weekend. But meat cleavers were brandished and live rounds fired in the air. The potential for sharp escalation is rising. 

Moreover, with these attacks, the likelihood of a consensus being reached on key issues appears to have evaporated again. As extremists among the protesters become more militant, so will the more conservative elements on the government side likely play a more forceful role in decision-making, too. Journalists were attacked openly at a rally, and yet the authorities have been largely silent. It is becoming harder to see how this crisis can be resolved in the near future, even if, as speculation mounts of a government economic-stimulus package coming, underlying causes can be addressed with urgency.

The potential toll on the city’s economy needs to be taken more seriously. Tourism numbers have plunged, and are increasingly unlikely to come back in time to stave off large-scale job losses. The retail sector, too, is likely to start seeing mass layoffs soon if these protests continue the way they are going. Even prospective new hires in higher value-added industries are apparently being put off from coming to Hong Kong. Major events that draw business visitors are increasingly likely to be cancelled, hitting not only tourism receipts but wider sectors of the economy dependent on them for securing business orders, contract negotiations, and more.

It’s not yet time to hit the panic button. Hong Kong has been through worse, and the police, despite all the complaints, have demonstrated remarkable professionalism. Some touch-and-go situations, where pistols were drawn, could have gone terribly wrong but for a well-trained force. Tactics are inevitably going to become more draconian, however, as pressure mounts on frontline officers to put down violent mobs.

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