In Hong Kong, end slips further out of sight

We ended our weekend analysis of the situation in Hong Kong by urging readers to remain calm and look ahead to see how a change of approach by Beijing might play out in the coming weeks and months. We didn’t have to wait long to see this advice put sorely to the test. It would have taken a deeply rooted stoicism to remain calm in the midst of Hong Kong’s newsflow today. Another shooting by police, a man set on fire, university campuses in chaos, and teargas and stormtroopers in Central: such scenes were surely enough to have sent anyone running for the exits. SCMP has it all.

We never said that Hong Kong’s situation was likely to get better anytime soon. On the contrary, it has seemed evident for some time that what is playing out now is still the prelude to a long, drawn-out conflict that will get significantly worse before it gets better. It would be right and proper to hope for peace to prevail as soon as possible, but it would be wise to plan for worse to come.

It is hard to fathom how the outlook for Hong Kong could be otherwise at the moment. With the government moving toward further curbing civil rights under either new national-security legislation or existing emergency powers based on colonial-era laws, a Chief Executive that addresses her opponents with haughty scorn, and radical protesters becoming increasingly determined to engage in extreme guerrilla warfare tactics, room for error of judgment is narrowing quickly in most situations. Compassion and common sense have little appeal for either side in emotionally charged standoffs.

If only it weren’t so. It would be reassuring to believe the city isn’t likely to see an ongoing deterioration in public safety while the rule of law is put under ratcheting pressure as protests become ever-more violent in the foreseeable future. But that would be to defy the odds, based on what is building up every day on screens across the city. Hong Kong likely has a long, hard road ahead of it to rebuild consensus on what kind of a society it wants to be. 

Anyone looking for models on which to base assessments of how this is all likely to turn out are fortunate that a good book is available to help with that. Jared Diamond’s Upheaval: How Nations Cope with Crisis and Change  provides instructional guidance on how some of the world’s biggest internal crises were managed by countries that today present a picture of calm and stability. None of them makes for hopeful thinking about Hong Kong in the near future. 

For those that don’t have the time to read the sprightly 81-year-old’s full text, The Guardian has a good interview here. In countries as diverse as Germany dealing with its Nazi past in 1968, Indonesia healing its social wounds after the army-led massacres of 1965-66,  Japan reinventing itself during the Meiji Restoration of 1868,  or Finland coming to grips with the reality of its relationship to Russia after their horrific Winter War in 1939-40, there were basic prerequisites in place that shaped their development. These included, most importantly, recognition of the nature of the crisis; a strong shared national identity; role models to look to; external resources to count on; and so on. Hong Kong has a few of these that will come in handy later on. But it is a long way from having the first, and its struggle with the second is what defines this crisis.

There is no point going further down the rabbit hole of speculation as to how much worse it’s going to get. All that needs to be recognized today is that this crisis likely has a long way to go, and further to fall, before any constructive turnaround can be contemplated. In the meantime, it’s best to buckle up.

Coverage and analysis of the rest of the Greater Bay Area will resume tomorrow.

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