Hong Kong continues to see mass protests over proposed extradition arrangements with China, Macao, and Taiwan, and a wider atmosphere of Chinese interference in the Special Autonomous Region. In this piece, Hong Kong-based security analyst Alexander Stafford examines the possibility of mainland police or military intervention, and the risks that might carry.
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As the protests that began over a proposed extradition bill two months ago have intensified, they have morphed into an expression of the intense frustration and despair Hong Kongers feel towards the mainland and their own – largely unresponsive – government. Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her administration have proven themselves unable to take control of the situation, lacking any kind of significant response to the protests. Indeed, with the protests now leading to massive strikes and with possible Triad involvement stoking violence, fears that Beijing may have to step in to crack the whip and restore order no longer seem as far fetched as they once did.
Concerns over possible mainland involvement have been stoked by reports that China has massed thousands of police or troops on the border with Hong Kong. The recent circulation of a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) promotional video which, amongst clips showcasing the PLA’s latest hardware, features troops (possibly from neighbouring Guangdong’s 74th Army Group) conducting a riot control exercise, has added to these concerns. The inclusion of one soldier shouting in Cantonese rather than the Mainland’s standard Mandarin “All consequences are at your own risk” seems particularly pointed. Neither of these examples are in any way proof of an impending invasion of Hong Kong by the mainland, but on July 26th the Chinese defence spokesman, Wu Qian, refused to rule out the use of force to resolve the situation.
The very thought of the PLA and protesters in the same breath cannot help but summon the spectre of the 1989 Tienanmen Square incident, where as many as 10,000 student protesters lost their lives. As a result, the prospect of Type-99 tanks rolling down Nathan Road in Kowloon should be enough to strike fear into the hearts of Hong Kongers, international businessmen and all reasonable members of the Politburo and Hong Kong LegCo alike. However, should the authorities choose to cross the Rubicon and draw on Chinese military assets to assert control of Hong Kong’s streets, it is worth considering what an intervention could look like.
The PLA has around 6,000 personnel garrisoned in Hong Kong from across the three major branches. This includes various engineering, intelligence and logistics elements as well as several mechanised and helicopter-borne infantry battalions and the so-called “5 minute Response” Special Operations Company. Under the Hong Kong Basic Law articles 14 and 18, the PLA can legally be deployed in Hong Kong at the request of the administration to assist with civil unrest or natural disasters. However, even if the entire garrison were to take to the streets it would only provide a moderate boost in the manpower available to the already 32,000-strong Hong Kong police force.
Such a boost could aid the police’s riot control efforts and provide extra boots on the ground. The PLA garrison also has several Type-92 APCs which could make for a very visible presence on streets usually filled with the city’s ubiquitous multicoloured taxis, and other hardware that could be used to intimidate protesters. However, it seems highly unlikely that the current unrest would be solved by deploying a few thousand troops in riot gear, or if the authorities would be willing to utilise the PLA in such a controversial way for such marginal gains. There are also questions as to how visible any PLA involvement could be without generating additional controversy. PLA troops confronting protesters in the New Territories and parts of Kowloon would no doubt cause a media storm, and an APC parked outside the HSBC building in downtown Central would not be a picture welcomed by international business or the more affluent expat community centred on the island.
What the PLA could offer in extremis is a far less compromising approach, with troops employing the threat of deadly force to discourage and disperse protesters. While local PLA units could provide some rapid reaction special forces options, short of protesters taking up arms and hostages it is difficult to see exactly how they could be employed. A more plausible possibility is that, once the decision to use the PLA had been made, reinforcements from the Mainland could be brought in. Drawing on the nearby Shenzhen garrison and 74th Army Group out of Huizhou in Guangdong, the PLA could quickly muster many thousands more troops. Such additional manpower could give the authorities options, such as attempting to impose a curfew in some areas of the city, although in such a scenario the PLA soldiers would still no doubt be reliant on the Hong Kong police to guide them through the convoluted side streets of one of the world’s most densely-packed metropolises in order to be effective.
Any use of the military would certainly be a big political gamble for Beijing and would almost certainly be the end of Carrie Lam’s political career. Should – against the odds – the PLA be used against protesters, it would have far reaching consequences that Beijing will not be blind to. Beyond the inevitable international condemnation and possible sanctions it would invoke, it would likely mark the end of Hong Kong’s status as one of the top destinations for foreign businesses and financial services in Asia, with severe ramifications for the people of Hong Kong as their economy was subsequently hit by the fallout and its extant social problems became magnified. Indeed, the possible fallout is such that even the editor in chief of the staunchly nationalistic Global Times is against the idea.
There is also the possibility that it could simply not work. Beijing should be mindful of the possibility that the PLA could be deployed to bring order to the streets only to see mass protests continue or even full scale revolt despite their best efforts. In such a case the central authority would be faced with a choice – ignominious withdrawal and loss of face domestically or to double down with enough manpower to break enough heads to force an end to the protests.
Since its rise to power the Chinese Communist Party has consistently used military force when it believed its core interests to be threatened. Should the situation in Hong Kong reach a threshold where Beijing judges the integrity of the PRC to be threatened, it is not beyond the pale to imagine the PLA being deployed in far greater numbers to stamp mainland authority on the SAR. Paradoxically, military intervention would mean an effective end to One Country, Two Systems, which China continues to espouse as the governing principle in relations between Hong Kong and the Mainland. Once PLA troops are on the streets of Hong Kong, the legal fig leaf afforded by article 14 of the Basic Law will not be enough to convince anyone that One Country, Two Systems is any longer more than simple theatre, which in turn would fuel further pro-independence sentiment in Hong Kong and further alienate Taiwan.
Rather than a brutal crackdown or the protests simply running out of steam, it is up to the Hong Kong government of Carrie Lam to address the concerns of the protesters and tackle the underlying problems of the city to bring an end to the protests. Unfortunately, given the unimaginative actions of the current administration and Lam’s massive unpopularity with the public, as well as the constraints placed on the Hong Kong political system by its subservience to the Mainland, such a deus ex machina resolution to the current crisis looks to be impossible.
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- Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow (Ben Bland)
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Alexander Stafford is a geopolitical and defence affairs writer specialising in naval and maritime issues, insurgencies, military history and strategy. He is a graduate of King’s College London’s War Studies programme who has spent several years based in Hong Kong, where he now focuses on South China Sea maritime security issues.
For an in-depth, bespoke briefing on this or any other geopolitical topic, consider Encylopedia Geopolitica’s intelligence consulting services.
Photo credit: VOA