[OPINION] Hong Kong turmoil: What if China moves in?

Jose Antonio A. Custodio

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[OPINION] Hong Kong turmoil: What if China moves in?
Here are 3 options for Beijing to deal with the unrelenting protests in Hong Kong

In the ongoing turmoil in Hong Kong the presence of the People’s Republic of China looms forbiddingly over all. For over 3 months Beijing has watched the drama unfold and drag on in Hong Kong, abetted mainly by the inability of the leaders of the Special Administrative Region (SAR) to solve the crisis. 

It appears that a stalemate has occurred and the SAR government cannot impose its will on the protesters. The protesters themselves have scheduled mass actions in advance for September and possibly onwards – not unless the protests will slack off once school starts, which is what the authorities hope will happen. However, the strategies and tactics of the protesters have changed significantly since the earlier protests almost half a decade ago, it might not be wise for the SAR government to count on school resumption to weaken rallies. 

Two reasons for this: first, large mass actions are scheduled every weekend when everybody is off from school or work; second, during the weekdays the protesters use smaller groups that undertake rapid actions composed of sudden gatherings at a given location to besieging district police stations that are near train stations.

The HongKong MTR Train is the preferred means of movement for these smaller groups that can appear at any point in the SAR within half an hour or so. Woe then to any unprepared police station near a MTR station. Hence, once school begins, weekday protest actions may be smaller but just as disruptive as the ones now. 

There is another reason not in favor of the SAR government in its operations and policies against the protesters. It is said to be uninspired and unadaptive leadership within the civilian and police leaders. That then explains the totally reactive responses of the SAR government and the HK police that have led to protesters maintaining the advantage in all major actions. 

Should the protests continue in the months to come, and if the situation does get out of hand as it increases in violence or, worse, dissent breaks out in another part of China, it can lead to pressure from Beijing on the SAR government to deal decisively with the crisis. It may also lead to direct intervention by China’s People’s Armed Police deployed in large numbers at adjacent Shenzhen.

Though the current perception in Beijing is that the Hong Kong police, which is one of the most professional police forces in Asia, can still handle the crisis, the deployment of at least 10,000 PAP backed up by an undetermined number of armored vehicles at Shenzhen reveals that China is not taking any chances. According to Chinese analysts, there is no legal impediment to the deployment of the PAP into HongKong.

To deal with Hong Kong, Beijing has 3 options:

  • The first is, of course, to see if the SAR government still has the necessary competence and capabilities to handle the protests. 
  • The second is to deal punitively and indiscriminately with Hong Kong by imposing economic and political sanctions against it and by increasing the incentives to adjacent Shenzhen – to make Hong Kong wither on the vine, so to speak. That may actually be counterproductive as it would result in more deeply-rooted resentment at Beijing from within the population.  
  • The 3rd is direct intervention in assistance to the SAR government and the 36,000-strong HK Police. Although the demonstrations against the SAR government have been sustained for the past 3 months and are sure to continue in the months ahead, the fear of a Tiananmen-style response by China may be overstated. Probably by this time the PAP may have gathered the necessary intelligence assessments on the demonstrations and protesters in meetings with HK counterparts that a working strategy may be executed that would not cause too much of an international ruckus. 

As demonstrations and rallies take the better part of the day to mobilize into huge critical masses, it is expected that any intervention by the PAP will happen very early in the day, before dawn breaks. PAP units from Shenzhen, and even possibly from Zhuhai, will stream into the SAR to control key strategic locations. This maneuver will be done with full coordination with the SAR government and HK police. The HK Police will still be the lead agency in dealing with any disturbances while the PAP may act as a force multiplier and means for intimidation.

With at least an approximate 50,000 combined HK Police and PAP force operating in the SAR, it would be extremely difficult for the protesters to mobilize large rallies as they would be prevented and intercepted from forming up by this joint force. Meanwhile, the SAR government would have established the necessary legal emergency policies, such as curfews, to neutralize large-scale unrest and acts of sabotage.

Will the HK Police be a reliable partner of the PAP? Probably so, because a wedge has been driven between the police and the protesters by inflammatory rhetoric, outright attacks against police installations and family residences, and high levels of distrust on both sides. 

A PAP intervention would bring about an uneasy temporary tense peace in the SAR. This then should be used by the SAR government to resolve the political, social, and economic crises affecting Hong Kong. However, given the growing lack of confidence on all sides on the current leadership of the SAR, it may be too much to assume that it can successfully accomplish such a challenging task. In fact, there are grumbles in private circles that the current crisis was caused by the complacency of the SAR leadership when, several years ago, it had already been warned about such a thing occurring. – Rappler.com 

Jose Antonio Custodio is a security and defense consultant. He specializes in military history and has post-graduate studies in history from the University of the Philippines. He occasionally teaches history and political science in several universities in Metro Manila.

Read other Thought Leaders pieces on the Hong Kong protests by the author:

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