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Hong Kong protests have reached a point of no return

Updated 2:17 PM ET, Tue August 13, 2019

Editor's Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and a former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and UNICEF. Follow him on Twitter @WorldAffairsPro. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his; view more opinions on CNN.

(CNN) - It was a scene none of us who have called Hong Kong home could have ever imagined: thousands of pro-democracy protesters occupying the arrivals level of Hong Kong International Airport, causing a shutdown of the facility Monday afternoon for all incoming and outgoing flights.

The airport blockade capped one of the bloodiest weekends in modern Hong Kong history which saw police indiscriminately firing tear gas and rubber bullets in the confined spaces of the city's mass-transit railway stations. It's becoming a very ugly scene in one of the world's premier business and financial centers, with Beijing edging closer to intervening.

According to reports, at least nine civilians were injured in the protests. Disgusted by the uptick in police violence, thousands of Hong Kong residents traveled to the island airport to make their voices heard. On Tuesday, the conflict escalated as riot police deployed to the airport clashed with the demonstrators. Protesters tried to block police vehicles and paramedics struggled to gain access to the scene. Officers, including the special tactical squad, remain stationed outside the airport and the EU has urged restraint from "all sides."

Livestream video from the airport showed protesters detaining and questioning a man suspected of being an undercover police officer -- a scene which will certainly rattle officials.

The situation in Hong Kong is quickly spiraling out of control and the local administration appears increasingly unable to manage a crisis that is entirely of its own making. It started several months ago when Chief Executive Carrie Lam introduced a controversial extradition bill, which has since been suspended but not entirely withdrawn. The bill could see Hong Kong residents sent to China's notoriously politicized judicial system.

Rather than defuse the situation with an offer of widespread public consultations on the bill and conciliatory language, Lam and her cronies have adopted a bunker mentality, communicating by intermittent press conferences and leaving the police to deal with the protesters and daily public messaging. A chaotic press conference on Tuesday, with Lam appearing frail but still resolute, failed in what could have been a last-ditch effort to convince protesters to go home.

What makes a quick solution even more elusive is that over the past 10 weeks the demands of the protest movement, such as the introduction of universal suffrage, have widened far beyond what the government can offer. Signs with provocative slogans such as "Liberate Hong Kong" are now commonplace across the city.

The mostly young protesters are focused on what might happen after the "one country, two systems" framework for Hong Kong, which allows it to have independent policing and legal systems, expires in 2047.

What is astonishing is that, after almost three months of widespread disruptions and now daily protests, one would've expected protest fatigue to set in among Hong Kong residents, known for their pragmatism and work ethic. In fact, as the protests drag on and as heavy-handed police tactics circulate on TV and social media, funding campaigns have sprung up to provide support to protesters.

And the leaders of the protest movement show no indication of backing down. Speaking on Monday to CNN's Christiane Amanpour, the charismatic leader Joshua Wong described Hong Kong as a police state, adding: "We will never give up...We will not be threatened by Beijing."

That type of language reminds me of what I heard firsthand from pro-democracy protesters in Shanghai, shortly after the Chinese army cleared Tiananmen Square in 1989. While the crackdown brought a long economic slowdown to China, mostly due to international sanctions, the pain was considered tolerable by a regime that has zero tolerance for dissent.

I now suspect Beijing is weighing its options on whether to risk a prolonged economic slowdown in Hong Kong in return for enforcing its will with military might.

So what could happen next? The blockade of the airport, which contributes 5% to Hong Kong's GDP, threatens the viability of Hong Kong's main gateway and could be the trigger point for Beijing to act. Other than a military intervention, immediate options could include a temporary curfew, shutting down the mass-transit system at night, more sophisticated police tactics and an increased security cordon around the airport and other key installations.

And with Lam seeming to lose her grip on Hong Kong, a Chinese-designated hardliner replacement might even be in the cards.

Ordinarily the United States, which could easily punish China by lifting Hong Kong's special economic status for the city, could be counted on to encourage a peaceful resolution. But any goodwill Washington had has been expended by the Trump administration in its ongoing trade war with China. America's absence, coupled with President Donald Trump's lack of interest, creates a dangerous void.

The incompetent handling of this crisis has caused permanent damage to Hong Kong's reputation as a stable international business center. Already influential investors, citing as well the impact of the trade war on Hong Kong, are signaling a turn towards safer havens. Uncertainty over the economy will certainly grow with each additional day of airport disruptions.

The widely respected American investor Jim Rogers told me: "Buy Shenzhen and Singapore." Translation: it doesn't look good for Hong Kong.

Whatever happens next, we appear to have reached a point of no return. The Hong Kong government needs to offer concessions that will bring an end to weeks of crippling protests. But the central government -- in effect Hong Kong's landlords -- has no history of caving to protesters, especially when it comes to widening democratic rights. And with China's 70th national day approaching on October 1, authorities in Beijing will want to see the Hong Kong situation well sorted by then.

Beijing, which is increasingly mimicking Russia's playbook, must have certainly taken note of how Russia forcibly annexed Crimea with relatively little pain. We can expect an increasingly assertive China to sanction a much heavier crackdown in Hong Kong while the world helplessly watches.


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