Protests in Hong Kong have escalated for weeks over mounting concerns that Hong Kong’s government is allowing Hong Kong’s autonomy and its residents’ personal freedoms to erode under pressure from mainland China. When the territory was returned to China by the United Kingdom in 1997, China had promised to respect Hong Kong’s special status under a “one country, two systems” policy. Fulfillment of that promise appears to be slipping away, prompting massive numbers of demonstrators to take to Hong Kong’s streets. Crackdowns by Hong Kong’s police have been met with more protests, most of which have been relatively peaceful but have been accompanied by some violence. The most recent protests this week have involved civil disobedience as thousands of people managed to shut down Hong Kong International Airport two days in a row. Riot police moved in and clashed with protesters at the airport on Tuesday. Tensions boiled over as a policeman was observed by a journalist drawing his gun and aiming it at protesters after he was attacked by his own baton that had been taken from him.
Hong Kong’s highly unpopular chief executive Carrie Lam, whose proposal to extradite Hong Kong criminal suspects to mainland China touched off the protests months ago, warned that the city risked sliding into an “abyss.” She added, “A lot of residents go out and return to the city [through the airport], and many tourists and business people use this transport hub. Hong Kong’s reputation, as a safe society that respects the rule of law, will be in a very dangerous [situation].” Her words have fallen on deaf ears.
Protesters at the airport were worried about being infiltrated by undercover Chinese agents. Some allegedly assaulted and detained one individual they suspected of being a member of Chinese security and prevented him from receiving medical assistance. They exclaimed, “You’ll bear the consequences for your own actions.” A second man, said to be a Chinese state media reporter, was also beaten up and detained. Both were ultimately evacuated.
The Chinese government and media had previously accused the protesters of engaging in “terrorism” and “violent crimes” – convenient terms for any dissent China sees as destabilizing. Its paramilitary police have been mobilizing for supposed exercises in the city of Shenzhen, which is near the Chinese-Hong Kong border. President Trump, urging calm, tweeted, “Our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!” Following the alleged assaults by protesters on Chinese mainland citizens while they were in Hong Kong, the Chinese regime could use such incidents as a pretext for direct intervention. The Chinese government’s excuse would be the need to protect its own citizens’ lives and property from those the regime considers to be “terrorists.” However, China, at least for now, may decide to hold off and instead ramp up pressure on the local police to end the protests themselves. The government may be anxious to avoid images reminiscent of the Tiananmen Square protests if possible.
Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, explained, as quoted by the South China Morning Post, that Beijing’s “escalatory rhetoric reflects Beijing’s unhappiness with what is going on and the Hong Kong government’s inability to bring this situation to a conclusion.” However, rather than signaling an imminent move to directly intervene in the crisis with its own forces, Mr. Pantucci believes that the Chinese regime is taking a hard line against the protesters for domestic reasons and to provide some cover for the local police to take further measures themselves. On the other hand, said Li Lifan, a professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, it would be a different story if the local police request help from the Chinese. “If they feel they are no long able to handle the situation, they may ask for Beijing’s help,” Professor Lifan said.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison stationed in Hong Kong, which is estimated to consist of about 6000 troops, could legally assist in “the maintenance of public order” if the Hong Kong government asked the central government for help, according to Article 14 of the Garrison Law of The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of The People’s Republic of China. Moreover, Article 6 of the Garrison Law provides all the wiggle room that the Chinese regime will need if it decides on its own to use its garrison forces to deal with the protests. Article 6 provides that “the Hong Kong Garrison shall perform its duties in accordance with the provisions of national laws decided to be applied in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region by the Central People’s Government” if there is “turmoil within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region which endangers national unity or security and is beyond the control of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” The same would be true if the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress “decides that the Region is in a state of emergency.” It’s not much of a stretch for the regime to decide that its garrison stationed in Hong Kong needs reinforcements from the Chinese mainland. They aren’t far away.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese regime is blaming the United States for stirring up the protests and interfering with China’s “internal” affairs. The Chinese government showed its displeasure by denying requests for port visits to Hong Kong by the USS Green Bay and USS Lake Erie later this month and next month. The impact of the Hong Kong crisis on the on-again, off-again trade talks remains to be seen.