Anti-government protests in Hong Kong that erupted over a now-suspended extradition bill have now entered a 10th week with no end in sight, putting the city's all-important business and transport activities at significant risk of damage. Beijing's latest warnings about the protests point to a growing possibility that the mainland government might abandon its previous restraint and instead directly intervene — a scenario that could cause as many problems for Beijing as for Hong Kong.
Unrest in Hong Kong intensified the weekend of Aug. 10-11, with violent clashes between protesters and local police and security forces, which continued their crackdown. On Aug. 12, protesters overwhelmed the territory's international airport, leading to the cancellation of hundreds of flights.
What Are Beijing's Red Lines, and How Might It Intervene?
With the Chinese and Hong Kong governments refusing to yield to protesters' demands and Hong Kong police thus far proving incapable of restoring calm, no resolution is on the horizon. And this raises questions about just what would induce the mainland government to intervene directly in the special administrative region.
On Aug. 12, a Chinese official said growing violence in Hong Kong, especially against the police, had begun showing characteristics of terrorism. He apparently was referring to the use of Molotov cocktails against the police and footage of a protester who appeared armed with an M320 grenade launcher. The official's description follows statements by the head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office the week of Aug. 4 that the unrest carries "color revolution characteristics," a reference to unrest in the former Soviet Union in the 2000s that Russia blamed on outside interference — perhaps a reference to reports of meetings between Hong Kong protest leaders and U.S. officials. Chinese state media, including Chinese news network CGTN, on Aug. 12 broadcast images of significant numbers of Chinese People's Armed Police forces in Shenzhen, immediately adjacent to Hong Kong, with 200 armored vehicles equipped with water cannons reportedly observed. Mainland officials have, however, voiced support for the Hong Kong security forces' efforts to "end the unrest," while Hong Kong police downplayed the terrorism description.
If Beijing is not bluffing and does eventually intervene, it would do so cautiously.
Beijing might be bluffing that it is considering an intervention in a bid to pressure the protesters to desist, since actually sending forces into Hong Kong would be risky. An overt intervention would guarantee widespread outrage among citizens of the territory, damage business confidence in Hong Kong and would greatly undermine the "One Country, Two Systems" strategy aimed at producing the peaceful reunification of Taiwan and the mainland. A violent crackdown would also almost certainly invite a harsh U.S. response, such as sanctions, just as the trade war has already weakened the Chinese economy. But if Beijing is bluffing, the protesters so far have called its bluff, continuing their demonstrations.
If Beijing is not bluffing, however, and does eventually intervene, it would do so cautiously. Rather than risk another Tiananmen Square-style incident by sending in the People's Liberation Army, Beijing would probably rely on the People's Armed Police, which is better equipped to defuse protests and riots without causing a bloodbath. Hong Kong's Basic Law doesn't provide for the entry of mainland forces other than the People's Liberation Army (and then only upon the request of Hong Kong's chief executive). Beijing might instead cite Article 18 of the basic law, which permits the National People's Congress to impose a curfew if the Hong Kong government cannot restore order, arguing that the right to impose a curfew implies the right to police a curfew. If it did, however, local police would probably be in command of any People's Armed Police forces.
What to Watch for
Actions by Mainland Officials: When top Chinese leaders emerge at some point in the next two weeks from their summer retreat in Beidaihe, their statements will indicate how they intend to approach Hong Kong. Any move to convene a National People's Congress standing committee, which would be the body that would debate imposing a curfew in Hong Kong, would be a strong indicator that an intervention is imminent.
The Movement of Mainland Forces: Any movements of the large forces purportedly gathered in Guangdong province to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China or of the armed police stationed in Shenzhen should be monitored.
Protesters' Responses: Though Beijing's ongoing warnings that it might intervene could persuade protesters to act with more restraint, they are more likely to provoke them to stay the course. Any intensification of unrest would make an intervention more likely.
Responses Abroad: Some in the United States, such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have suggested sanctioning Beijing in the event of a violent crackdown on protesters in Hong Kong, though U.S. President Donald Trump has said Hong Kong is an internal matter for Beijing. Officials have also suggested that Hong Kong could lose its special trade and customs regime in the event of a crackdown, though opinions on this are divided because doing so would also cost the United States. If the United States did proceed, Hong Kong would stand to lose a great deal from U.S. tariff measures, which would harm its currency and financial markets, and in the long term, its status as a financial hub.
Market Reaction: Even though Beijing's intervention might end the protests in the short term, the prospect of direct intervention by Beijing will further rattle the territory's economy, which has already been rocked by the weeks of violence. And given Hong Kong's position as a world financial center and a critical financial link to the outside world for Beijing, any serious financial disruptions would harm mainland and territory alike.