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It’s late Wednesday evening at Hong Kong International Airport and there’s an uneasy calm in the arrivals hall. The huge crowds of protesters and police from the night before have largely dissipated; the violence of 24 hours replaced by an almost eery stillness.
But there’s no mistaking the airport’s central, though hopefully temporary, role in Hong Kong’s escalating crisis. The first thing that arriving passengers such as me encounter after exiting the baggage hall is a sea of placards and leaflets [since removed on Thursday morning] and a gathering of around 80-90 black-shirted protestors, most sat in silence.
Most sources here believe that the injunction obtained Tuesday by Airport Authority Hong Kong – which prohibits any unlawful and wilful obstruction of the proper use of the airport – should ensure that this key international hub sees no return to the chaos of earlier this week. But Hong Kong feels like a powder keg and to many locals it’s not a question of if it will explode but when and where.
Widespread reports in the local and international media today claim that large numbers of the People’s Armed Police Force are gathered in the nearby city of Shenzhen with riot gear and semi-militarised vehicles. It’s a show of force that suggests Beijing is losing patience fast, though direct intervention remains unlikely for now. What will happen next? Will this weekend, as many fear, bring more carnage?
In an opinion piece in UK newspaper The Guardian yesterday, Sebastian Veg, a professor of Chinese contemporary history at EHESS in Paris, observed: “While the leaderless ‘be water; strategy has served the growth of the protest movement well, it has also emerged as a liability, because there is no forum to coordinate a return to non-violent tactics or possible negotiations with authorities. Finding an exit strategy is almost always the most difficult part of anti-government mobilisation, and it remains unclear how the spiral of violence can be halted now.”
That is precisely how many people here are thinking. With both sides seemingly so entrenched and tensions stretched to breaking point, fears are widespread that things can only get worse before they get better.