Hong Kong is being brought to a standstill today, as promised, as shops close and staff either stay at home or don black T-shirts to go out marching in scorching heat. Protesters, police and journalists are just about the only ones carrying on with business as usual. Flights are being delayed or rerouted as airport staff join the citywide strike; buses and MTR services are being severely disrupted; and increasingly violent clashes between protesters and police seem all but inevitable as the hours pass.
The video footage is getting more worrisome. Scenes of a driver ramming through a road barricade are going viral (it is amazing nobody was hurt). Crowds are swelling in shopping malls and streets, and protests are no longer confined to a few places. They are breaking out all over the city, and police forces are thinly stretched. It is all but impossible for established news media to keep on top of everything that is happening.
This is not the Cultural Revolution of 1965-76. That was sheer lawlessness, encouraged and at times directed from the top. But it is starting to feel like it. Communities are splintering. Facebook groups are breaking up. People that went to college or high school together have stopped talking. Parents are losing touch with their kids. It is no longer only an anti-government movement. It is increasingly becoming a counter-cultural movement. Society is being split sharply into Blue and Yellow, with the Yellows standing for radical change and the Blues standing against. No one is talking about principles anymore – only chanting slogans. There is no hope for negotiation. There is no one that can negotiate.
The government is paralyzed. The hapless Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, can do nothing but read out wooden statements at press conferences that no one bothers to watch anymore. One meme trending on Facebook shows TV viewers ticking Bingo cards with her favorite clichés in the blocks instead of numbers.
The police are mostly just running around, chasing the flame, trying not to go nuts, following procedure when they can and cracking heads – sometimes the wrong ones – when they can’t. There are hotheads, and likely worse, among them, but their fear is understandable. Bricks and bars are being upgraded to petrol bombs. Police stations are being attacked. Police families’ living compounds are being pelted by neighbors.
The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, meanwhile, has set the speculation fires burning by announcing it will say “something new” at a press conference tomorrow: Could it be the imposition of a State of Emergency? Are reports of riot police massing at the Shenzhen border, arrayed like stormtroopers from Star Wars, to be believed this time?
There is a palpable sense in the air here that there is no going back. Hong Kong is not just blowing off steam. This all appears to be heading inexorably toward a violent, probably bloody, climax that will surely go into the world’s history books. We hope and pray for a change, but at this stage, a calamitous showdown is starting to look unavoidable.