Protests in Hong Kong have gripped the world’s attention since Summer of 2019. Although the extradition bill that incited the protests is now officially withdrawn, protests continue. In Aug. of 2019, external observers noted the buildup of military units in Shenzhen — the mainland Chinese city across Hong Kong’s land border — sparking fears of a military intervention. However, such an action was not likely, and so far has not come to pass despite recent, rapid escalation. In this article, I intend to discuss why that is.
As the demonstrations progressed, Hong Kong police have repeatedly used tear gas and rubber bullets to force protesters to disperse. The police are also credibly accused of shooting demonstrators with live ammunition, using nominally nonlethal weapons in ways designed to increase the odds of killing protesters, and using plainclothes officers to attack opposition groups. The disproportionate police reaction has become another point of contention for protesters, leading to the continued demonstrations.
In Aug. of 2019, external observers noted the buildup of military units in Shenzhen, the mainland Chinese city across Hong Kong’s land border, sparking fears of a military intervention. Such an operation would be legally allowed under Hong Kong’s constitution should Hong Kong’s government request it. Given the current government’s reliance on China, it would be unlikely for them to say no if Beijing suggested the invitation.
In historical perspective, China enjoys sovereignty over Hong Kong, but the territory has been a self-governing semiautonomous “Special Administrative Region” with its own government, legal code, passports and police since the 1997 handover from Great Britain, who had leased the territory since the mid-19th century. The city’s status as an enclave of Western social and legal norms in close proximity to China’s growing economy has made it a key crossroad between the two, but disagreement between local organizations and the government in Beijing over how autonomous Hong Kong’s government should be — specifically regarding electoral reforms that gave the Chinese government the power to veto candidates — have triggered several rounds of protest, the most recent being the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
Why Would China Use the Military?
China is no stranger to using its military to suppress protests. Most famously, the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989 involved the government calling in the army to suppress the protests. And given the few checks — domestic or international — on the Chinese government’s power, there is little disincentive to quashing a protest with a combination of censorship and armed force. In fact, China possesses an entire paramilitary force, the People’s Armed Police, who are specifically oriented towards suppressing protest.
Additionally, the hardened rhetoric coming out of Beijing at present makes it less possible for China’s government to compromise in the future. Reneging on these threats could upset the domestic nationalists upon whom the government frequently relies for support, as failing to assert order over what they view as an integral part of Chinese territory would be a serious blow to government prestige. Thus, military operations seem to be the only prompt answer to the conundrum of Hong Kong.
In addition, police and protesters have become increasingly aggressive against each other, most notably the dramatic siege of Hong Kong Polytechnic University, in which police surrounded the campus and arrested anyone leaving. Police used armored cars and fired thousands of rounds of tear gas, while university students constructed improvised defenses and employed molotovs, improvised trebuchets and arrows. Given this escalation, it seems only a matter of time before Beijing decides to use overwhelming force to stop protesters.
Why Wouldn’t China Use the Military to Suppress Protest?
An invasion, however, was never likely. First, to look at historical precedent: in 2014, China simply ignored the Umbrella Movement’s demands, despite two months of mass demonstrations. Pro-Beijing lawmakers carried on with their modifications to Hong Kong’s electoral system. While the strategy used there is still basically sound, the size and intensity of protests this time around make that route less attractive. Even so, China decided against invasion in the past as well, which indicates that there are more factors than just the convenience of military force that the Chinese government considers when charting their course of action.
For example, China is also cognizant of international condemnation. After the violent suppression of the now-infamous protests in Tiananmen Square, large swathes of the globe denounced China. The U.S. and European Union ceased selling arms to the Chinese government in response. Given this history and the semi-ngoing U.S.-China Trade War, Beijing is likely loath to invite further retaliation, especially if the American Congress gets behind such action. Likewise, sanctions from Europe and other concerned countries could prove more damaging in the context of the existing trade conflict.
A military crackdown might also further damage Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe harbor for business. Companies are already canceling their plans to invest, and may begin looking to place their Asia offices elsewhere if instability continues. On top of that, if China moves in to suppress protests, that would also signal a breakdown of the norms that have sheltered businesses from the less favorable Chinese legal system.
Money aside, China knows mass murder of protesters looks bad internationally and domestically, and given the ubiquity of smartphones, internet access and international press in Hong Kong, the optics of a military crackdown are extremely poor and lead to catastrophic consequences. Using the military would only intensify the existing condemnation. Although police are credibly accused of numerous murders, the optics of singleton actions are very different than that of mass death.
The use of police violence does not necessarily indicate escalation to military invasion is inevitable. The analogous Umbrella Movement of 2014 also triggered police crackdowns yet was not ultimately suppressed through police action. So in the case of these ongoing protests, the buildup of paramilitary forces on the Hong Kong border is likely a “bad cop,” meant to reinforce a similar strategy of outlasting protesters.