As another weekend of potentially violent clashes in Hong Kong nears, many people in the semi-autonomous Chinese city and around the world are asking the same question: would China really send in the People’s Liberation Army?
- Analysts say the chances of PLA soldiers descending into Hong Kong aren’t high
- Hong Kong still has 28 years to go of its One Country, Two Systems model
- Sending troops would deeply strain a number of diplomatic and financial relations
In recent weeks, the Chinese Government has gone to great lengths to tease the idea publicly.
A propaganda video from the Hong Kong garrison showing troops quelling civil unrest along with a similar large-scale police drill just across the mainland border were hardly subtle in their messaging.
Chinese officials, both civilian and military, have repeatedly reminded the public that Hong Kong’s law allows for PLA troops to assist if requested by the city’s government.
Comments from officials and state media denouncing the protesters as “criminals”, crossing “red lines” through “intolerable violence” add to the perception Beijing wants to convey — that troops on the streets can’t be ruled out.
But speak to any analyst, researcher or many Hong Kong people themselves, and you realise the chances of PLA soldiers leaving their barracks anytime soon aren’t high.
For starters, Hong Kong still has 28 years to go of its One Country, Two Systems deal, which allows for freedoms unheard of on the mainland.
The root cause of the anger fuelling the two-month protest movement is a perception that China’s Government is increasingly violating the autonomy Hong Kong was promised.
It’s almost impossible to imagine how authorities could deploy Chinese troops on the streets, potentially firing at protesters, and then keep going with the same freedoms of speech, press and civil society that have allowed such anger to be expressed in the first place.
“It means the end of the One Country, Two Systems model, it means failure on the part of Beijing’s policies towards Hong Kong,” Joseph Cheng, a retired political analyst, said.
Deploying the PLA would ‘severely affect’ Taiwan
PHOTO: The People’s Liberation Army held an open day in Hong Kong, which some saw as a warning to the protesters.(Reuters: Tyrone Siu)
The PLA garrison in Hong Kong is said to house up to 10,000 soldiers across a handful of bases, and their relatively low-profile presence is seen as largely symbolic, especially compared to the much larger Hong Kong police force.
“It’s a political problem, I don’t think sending in a security force would effectively deal with it,” said Adam Ni, a Chinese military researcher at Macquarie University.
“If anything that would just exacerbate antagonism among the public and the international community.”
Secondly, an often-overlooked issue of great concern to Beijing is its efforts to gain control over the self-ruled island of Taiwan.
Chinese leaders often say the island is the most sensitive issue of all, and a major part of Beijing’s hearts and minds campaign to woo Taiwanese is a promise of One Country, Two Systems.
In recent days China banned its citizens from individually travelling to Taiwan for tourism, its military held drills near the Taiwan strait and Beijing even forced mainland filmmakers to boycott a prestigious awards ceremony in Taiwan — all in an effort to dissuade voters from sticking with the independent-leaning President Tsai Ing-wen at an upcoming election.
PHOTO: This week, Chinese riot police staged a drill across the bay from Hong Kong in Shenzhen involving 12,000 officers.(Reuters: Gu Wei)
Deploying the PLA in Hong Kong would “severely affect Beijing’s approach to Taiwan,” according to Mr Cheng.
“It’s been said that President Tsai Ing-wen has been the major beneficiary of the crisis in Hong Kong”, he said, pointing out how a military intervention would be disastrous for China’s attempts to reassure the Taiwanese that they too could retain their freedoms under Beijing’s rule.
Thirdly, Hong Kong’s role as a financial conduit between the mainland and the rest of the world would be at risk, with a military intervention potentially undermining confidence in the rule of law system that keeps international banks in the city.
That legal system remains vitally important to many Chinese companies investing money out of the mainland through Hong Kong to overseas.
How much escalation would it take?
PHOTO: Hong Kong police have been trying to restore order by firing tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators.(Reuters: Tyrone Siu)
Analysts point to China’s deeply strained relations with Western nations too, particularly the US, as further reasons to keep the PLA troops inside their barracks.
This week a Chinese official in Beijing, Yang Guang, praised Hong Kong residents who had opposed the protesters and appeared to pin Beijing’s hopes on a growing citizen pushback rather than military intervention.
Despite the fiery rhetoric that officials have been repeating for weeks, the costs of intervening at the current level appear too high.
China’s Government is betting on a test of endurance between disruptive protesters and frustrated local citizens, and appears content to support Hong Kong police to dramatically increase arrests and use greater force.
“It’s illogical to deploy the PLA or the People’s Armed Police,” Mr Ni said.
“But we shouldn’t discount the possibility of that happening if the mass protests continue to escalate.”
The question is how much escalation would it take for China’s President Xi Jinping to take such an extraordinary risk.
PHOTO: After nearly 10 weeks of unrest, the Hong Kong demonstrations have become increasingly tense and volatile.(AP: Kin Cheung)