Chinese political and military leaders this week have made a series of statements and possible moves that could foreshadow a future bloody outcome: Beijing’s forces intervening in Hong Kong.
After taking over Hong Kong in a war in the 1800s, Britain returned it to China in 1997 with an important stipulation: The city would partly govern itself for 50 years before fully falling under Beijing’s control. So until 2047, the expectation was that the city and the mainland would operate under the principle known as “one country, two systems.”
But Beijing clearly isn’t waiting that long, and critics say it’s imposing its will on the semiautonomous city via a puppet government. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy citizens have protested those and other moves peacefully since the early summer, but in recent weeks, demonstrators and the city’s authorities have used violence to make their points.
Mainland China hasn’t taken kindly to the unrest, which it views as deeply threatening to its power. China’s political leadership and law enforcement officials don’t like anyone protesting the government in Beijing and have no tolerance for democratic movements.
It’s no wonder, then, that Beijing has talked tough since protests began. But now it seems Chinese authorities may be speaking a little too tough these days.
On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying blamed the Hong Kong protests on America. “As you all know, they are somehow the work of the US,” she told reporters at a press conference. China would “never allow any foreign forces” to interfere in the city, she said, adding that “those who play [with] fire will only get themselves burned.”
There’s no evidence for her claim. But saying that a foreign nation instigated Hong Kong’s protests makes the case for military intervention much easier. No longer are the demonstrations an internal issue — they’re now a global conspiracy that must be shut down.
The next day, an unnamed senior White House official told reporters that the US was monitoring a buildup of Chinese military units and armed police on Hong Kong’s border. It’s unclear, though, if this assembly was separate from a 19,000-strong police swearing-in ceremony in the neighboring Guangdong province. The Chinese government has denied any amassing of troops.
And also on Wednesday, Chen Daoxiang, the commander of China’s military garrison in Hong Kong — which holds around 6,000 troops — said his forces were “determined to protect national sovereignty, security, stability and the prosperity of Hong Kong.” His remarks came as China released a new propaganda video which include armed forces practicing shooting at protestors, after which he underscored his support for the city’s chief executive for “rigorously enforcing the law.”
Put together, it looks like Beijing is paving the way to send its military into Hong Kong, a move that could launch a protracted fight killing hundreds and injuring many more.
That’s not to say an incursion is imminent or will even happen, but it’s still a distinct possibility.
After all, China’s Communist Party invaded Tibet in 1950, over the past year unleashed a massive crackdown on Uighur Muslims in the country’s west, and is openly discussing forcing Taiwan — a breakaway democratic island — back under its control.
It’s why some experts aren’t discounting the possibility that China will actually send its forces into Hong Kong, though they say it’d be a foolish thing to do.
“It would damage China’s economic interests, harm its global reputation, and destroy any possibility of unification with Taiwan for the foreseeable future,” Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, told me.
“But if the Chinese Communist Party deems that its immediate national interests require intervening to snuff out opposition that they view as threatening stability on the Chinese mainland, it can’t be ruled out,” she continued.
Which means that the situation in Hong Kong — which has descended into violence after months of protests — could conceivably get a whole lot worse.