Amid extraordinary scenes of vandalism and havoc as youthful protesters over-ran Hong Kong’s parliament building on Monday evening, two striking images stood out.
One was the hanging of a colonial-era Hong Kong flag on the speaker’s lectern in the main chamber of the legislative council — a highly provocative move guaranteed to boil the blood of China’s leaders.
The other was the orderly and deliberate retreat by the police from their defence of the building, a calculated decision that allowed excited young protesters with no clear objectives to run amok.
It is inconceivable that the police abandoned their posts without the consent of Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive, Carrie Lam. It is also very unlikely she made that decision without first seeking Beijing’s permission.
So if the retreat was indeed a tactical one that deliberately allowed demonstrators to wreak havoc in the city’s symbolic heart, what was the goal?
Ms Lam, presumably with Beijing’s backing, appears to be gambling that the scenes of violence and senseless destruction will turn the majority of Hong Kong’s population against the young activists, whose principal demand now is for the chief executive to resign.
The chaotic scenes and extensive property damage may also be used to justify mass arrests of the young demonstrators who took part.
Hong Kong remains a deeply conservative society and public support for past protest movements, including the so-called Umbrella Revolution in 2014, have dwindled as their inconvenience to daily lives has increased.
Ms Lam and her backers may have been emboldened by a counter-protest on Sunday at which tens of thousands of mostly older demonstrators marched through central Hong Kong to show their support for the police and her government.
That march was far smaller than the black-shirted demonstrations that have swept through the city demanding Ms Lam’s resignation and the total repeal of legislation that would allow people in the territory to be extradited to mainland China.
But it reinforced the assertion by Beijing and Ms Lam that a “silent majority” in Hong Kong supports her and loves the motherland.
While an estimated 550,000 marched peacefully in opposition to her government on Monday, the wrecking of parliament will strengthen her narrative that protesters are a small group of hooligans who have been manipulated by “hostile foreign forces” seeking to harm China’s interests.
But Ms Lam and Beijing appear to have opted for a high-risk strategy.
The chief executive has proven herself to be incredibly tone deaf when it comes to heeding the will of the people and there is no guarantee that the deplorable scenes of vandalism will turn the wider public against the protests.
Already perceived as a lame duck, allowing the city’s parliament to be overrun only strengthens the perception of her weakness.
Unlikely as it is, if Ms Lam acted on Monday without Beijing’s permission, it could provoke China’s hardline leaders to intervene more forcefully, perhaps even by deploying Chinese troops in the city for the first time.
The relative ease with which the unorganised youths occupied the legislative building before police calmly reclaimed it several hours later could actually embolden the movement to seek a more prolonged occupation.
If mass arrests come next it will definitely radicalise many of the city’s youth and lead to still more unrest and possibly a worsening cycle of violence.
As the turmoil continues in one of the world’s leading financial centres, Ms Lam and her bosses in Beijing have once again opted for short-term tactical advantage without a clear idea of the wider strategic objective.