Why Xi won’t be sending the PLA to quell Hong Kong protests

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Even as fears concerns of rising authoritarianism continue to waft in and around the east, there are good reasons for mainland China not to interfere in the economic hub of Hong Kong with the use of force.

Despite escalation in posturing, mainland officials have so far been clear that the situation in Hong Kong is for the local government to manage. | AFP

The eleven-week-long protest movement in Hong Kong has reached a critical phase. Earlier this week, thousands of protesters converged on the city’s airport, paralysing operations and disrupting nearly 1,000 flights. The airport was finally cleared on Thursday after clashes between riot police and the protesters.

The scenes of chaos played out as the top leadership of the Communist Party of China met for its annual conclave at the beachside town of Beidaihe. The situation in Hong Kong undoubtedly must have been on top of the agenda. The protests, which initially focussed on an extradition bill put forward by the city’s government, have now evolved into a larger battle for autonomy from Beijing’s tightening grip. In the process, peaceful demonstrations have given way to anger and violence.

Over the past 15 days, Chinese officials and media outlets have gone from calling the protest a riot, to deeming it a challenge to China’s soverignity and national security, to calling it a potential colour revolution supported by foreign forces and now even terrorism. Nationalist fervor is raging on social media in the mainland. What’s fueling this is a mix of propaganda, censorship and deep-seated resentment between Hong Kongers and mainlanders.

 

 

This ominous change in tone from Beijing was underscored by the spokesperson of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office on August 6. Yang Guang warned in no uncertain terms that “those who play with fire will perish by it”. The protesters, he added, should not “mistake our restraint for weakness”.

A few days later, reports and satellite imagery showed that hundreds of personnel of the People’s Armed Police, the PRC’s paramilitary forces responsible for internal security, conducted exercises at a sports stadium in Shenzhen on Thursday. The town borders Hong Kong. Chinese state media outlets have referred to the exercises but haven’t necessarily connected them to Hong Kong.

The United States State Department says it is deeply concerned about the reports of the drills. The U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs has warned that any attempt to use force by Beijing would be met with “universal condemnation and swift consequences”. A tweet by U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday established a tenuous link between a potential Sino-U.S. trade deal and the need for Xi Jinping to handle the situation “humanely”.

These turns of events indicate an increasing sense of unease that Beijing is now seriously contemplating the use of force. This, of course, remains a possibility. The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region empowers local authorities to request Beijing for such assistance. The PLA, in fact, already has troops stationed at a garrison in Hong Kong.

 

Barring any violent escalation over the next few weeks, which appears unlikely as the protesters seemed to be apologising after this week’s airport clashes, Beijing is likely to be comfortable viewing this round as part of the acrimonious process of eventual integration.

 

However, given the current scenario, it is highly unlikely that Xi will deploy the armed forces to quell the protests. For starters, despite escalation in posturing, mainland officials have so far been clear that the situation in Hong Kong is for the local government to manage. In that process, the local police have been encouraged to act “with no hesitation or mercy”. Secondly, videos of drills in Shenzhen are not incontrovertible warning signs of impending use of force. On July 31, the PLA garrison in Hong Kong put out a video showing troops undergoing anti-riot drills. Therefore, it would be an overreaction to consider the Shenzhen drills as being a sign of imminent action.

Again, there is a possibility that Beijing will eventually deploy the armed forces in Hong Kong. However, that decision is likely to be based on three broad assessments.

First, do the party elite, particularly Xi Jinping, believe that the situation in Hong Kong poses an existential threat to the rule of the Communist Party? Growth and development are critical for the legitimacy of the CPC’s rule. But paramount is the need for stability. For Beijing, “violence is preferable to perceived political weakness” and “uncontrolled deterioration of political authority”, argued Jude Blanchette, the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a recent piece discussing the events in Hong Kong. What is unclear, however, is whether the current situation poses such a challenge. There have been some comparisons to the situation in Hong Kong being akin to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. But what such comparisons ignore is that the 1989 protests weren’t just at Tiananmen Square. It was a movement that burgeoned in multiple cities across the PRC. The challenge they posed was vastly different. Moreover, one could argue that, for the moment, Hong Kong has permitted the regime to divert attention from economic issues, whip up nationalism and shift blame to external forces. In the process, it has buttressed the Party’s ability to re-assert itself as the vanguard against foreign threats, enhancing public support for the leadership.

 

 

Second, Hong Kong in 2019 is not Beijing in 1989 or even Xinjiang in 2019. The costs of the PLA moving onto the bustling streets of Hong Kong are vastly different from similar action in the mainland. Hong Kong is one of the world’s leading financial centers. It’s a thriving destination for trade, investment, tourism and retail, and continues to be a crucial link connecting the mainland to the wider world. Armed troops lining the streets are likely to spell the death knell for the city’s economic stability. Even if PLA convoys roll down Nathan Road, it is unclear under what conditions an exit would be desirable or feasible. There could be a scenario in which pitched urban battles amid an alienated society further undermines the regime’s stability. Finally, Beijing’s cost-benefit analysis must also factor in the potential impact of its actions in Hong Kong with regard to its agenda for reunification with Taiwan. The 2019 Taiwan National Security Survey showed a shift in public perception in Taiwan with regard to China. A majority of Taiwanese, 53%, favour better ties with China, while 42% also view themselves as Chinese, up from 40% in 2017. Use of force in Hong Kong is likely to dampen this sense and embolden the pro-independence sentiment. That would be a setback for Beijing, particularly given that Taiwan’s legislative and presidential elections are around the corner.

Finally, there are other options on the table for the CPC leadership, which could be more effective with lower costs. Beijing has already extended a carte blanche for police action in Hong Kong. In addition, it can choose to support them by surreptitiously deploying Chinese police or PAP personnel as Hong Kong law enforcement officers. Another tactic already evident is drawing a distinction between the so-called “radicals” who comprise a “very small group of unscrupulous and violent criminals” and other protesters. Another component are the so-called patriotic forces, whose impact plays out in terms of public discourse, fracturing civil society unity. For instance, this week citizens against the protests took out advertisements across newspapers in Hong Kong, backing the police and urging the government to deny permissions for future protests. Finally, there is increasingly an attempt by Beijing to play on the concerns of the business community, many of whom were against the extradition law but are now concerned about instability. A number of key business leaders in the city have taken to the media, calling on the protesters to step back and the government to address economic issues. Keeping such views in mind, the Office of the Commissioner of the Chinese Foreign Ministry this week cited the need for China to also protect development interests in the context of its actions in Hong Kong.

July 1 marked the 22nd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong to China. Article 5 of the Basic Law promises that the capitalist system of the city and its way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years. Unless there is serious violent escalation over the next few weeks, which appears unlikely as the protesters seemed to be apologising after this week’s airport clashes, Beijing is likely to be happy viewing this round as part of the acrimonious process of eventual integration.

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