Will China Crush the Protests in Hong Kong?

Why Beijing Doesn’t Need to Send in the Troops

A protestor throws a rock at a police station in Hong Kong, August 2019 Kim Kyung Hoon / Reuters

For five months, Hong Kong has seen waves of massive protests and violence in the streets. And for five months, the local authorities, with the backing of Beijing, have responded in increasingly draconian ways—from wielding batons and firing lethal shots at protesters to jailing them on rioting charges—that have succeeded mostly in inflaming public sentiment. The situation has devolved into a stalemate, featuring escalating protests and brutal clashes between police and demonstrators. The question on everyone’s mind is if and when the Chinese government will resort to more aggressive means—including use of the military—to end the unrest for good.

The protests began in February in response to a proposed law that would allow Hong Kong to extradite residents of the territory to the Chinese mainland, tearing down the last firewall protecting Hong Kong from Beijing. Although Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam agreed to “suspend” the extradition bill on June 15, residents have continued to press their demands, calling for the formal withdrawal of the bill, an independent investigation into police abuses, the dropping of riot charges against protesters, and the introduction of democratic reforms.

On July 21, after activists defaced the national emblem outside of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong’s Western District, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense accused the protesters of “challenging the central government’s authority” and violating the principle of “one country, two systems”—the term used to describe Beijing’s model for ruling Hong Kong since assuming sovereignty over the territory in 1997. The protesters’ “radical” actions, he said, were “intolerable.” Then, on July 31, the Chinese military garrison in Hong Kong released a video showing Chinese troops practicing anti-riot drills. In one scene, the troops shouted that “all consequences are at your own risk!” Together, these messages were widely seen as a threat to deploy troops from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Some commentators in the United States have even raised the prospect of another Tiananmen

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