While China might be exploiting fears of a bloody “Tiananmen” crackdown on Hong Kong’s protest movement, analysts said the potentially catastrophic economic and political consequences would deter Beijing from any overt boots-on-the ground intervention.
As the clashes between pro-democracy demonstrators and police have grown increasingly violent, Beijing’s condemnation has become more ominous, with warnings that those who play with fire will “perish by it.”
At the same time, the military garrison maintained by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Hong Kong released a video showing an anti-riot drill in which soldiers with assault rifles, armored personnel carriers and water cannons disperse a crowd of protesters.
The images and stepped-up rhetoric have fueled concerns that Beijing could forcefully step in — fears that some analysts suggest China is playing on.
“Beijing wants to use the threat of sending in the PLA, or other direct intervention, to try to scare off the protesters,” said Ben Bland, research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
“But given the high level of operational risk — and the reputational and economic risks to China — sending in the PLA would be a dangerous move,” Bland said.
China’s brutal 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square resulted in two years of economic near-stagnation as the country became an international pariah.
The fallout from any similar intervention in Hong Kong would be far more severe.
The long-term stability of the territory is crucial to China’s economic well-being, and images of Chinese troops or riot police on the streets would be broadcast and live-streamed around the world.
It would also have a major impact on Beijing’s ambitions to unify with Taiwan.
For the moment, China has restricted itself to voicing its total support for the Hong Kong police force.
However, while Hong Kong law states that the PLA troops stationed there cannot interfere in local affairs, it does allow for their deployment at the request of the Hong Kong government to “maintain public order.”
Security experts said that in the 30 years since the Tiananmen Massacre, China has developed a sophisticated security control apparatus that allows far more options for quelling unrest than simply sending in the tanks.
Analyst Wu Qiang (吳強), a former politics lecturer at Tsinghua University in Beijing, said that China learned its lessons from the 1989 crackdown as it conducted numerous “exchanges” with police forces in Europe and the US.
“A large part of this was exchanges on how to deal with political riots and peaceful protests,” Wu said.
Those methods were on clear display in the PLA garrison drill and another video distributed last week showing thousands of Chinese riot police conducting a similar exercise in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong.
While the techniques were modern, Wu said that the ability to deploy them effectively in Hong Kong was another matter.
“The Chinese regime has no experience of suppressing riots in a free society,” he said.
Even if it were able to carry out a non-lethal intervention, the optics of Chinese forces in the streets of Hong Kong in any capacity would still provoke near-global concern and outrage.
Political analyst Willy Lam (林和立), from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, suggested that Beijing could consider a more covert method of sending its troops or police in.
“They will be wearing Hong Kong Police uniform so it won’t be a formal deployment,” Lam said.
There have already been rumors that such an exercise is under way, leading the Hong Kong police to issue a statement last week flatly rejecting “allegations” of Chinese reinforcements among their ranks.
One of the leaders of the 1989 Tiananmen protests, Wuer Kaixi, said that the Chinese leadership was too driven by self-interest to consider any armed intervention.
“I believe they have learned the lesson that the price of using the military is very high,” he said from Taiwan, where he lives.
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