The People’s Liberation Army has had a busy summer in Hong Kong, with two months of protests on the city’s streets, which have frequently been turned into semi-war zones because of running battles between protesters and police.
The 6,000-strong PLA garrison is never insulated from the heat of politics, and the groundswell against China’s extradition bill has drawn global coverage to Beijing’s responses in the former British colony.
First, there was a naval drill staged in Victoria Harbor, then the garrison commander received a deputy defense secretary from the US. And then an exercise was staged at a military camp in Shenzhen to mock quelling mayhem and street battles.
In the beginning, the Chinese military opted to stay low-key. The garrison’s commander, Major General Chen Daoxiang, told visiting US principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs David Helvey in June that the Hong Kong government and city police would have to deal with the demonstrations.
Yet the rift between the protesters and city government has taken a turn for the worse in recent weeks with increasing violence and arrests. And on Wednesday Chen told an auditorium of Hong Kong officials and foreign diplomats at the garrison’s Central Barracks to mark the PLA’s 92nd anniversary, that China’s sovereignty and “one country, two systems” framework must not be challenged. Ongoing violence and rioting would not be tolerated.
Later yesterday, a propaganda video was posted on the garrison’s Weibo account and then widely shared by Chinese netizens. It has given substance to Chen’s warning.
The centerpiece of the three-minute newsreel about the “impregnable resolve and might” of the garrison was a chapter on maintaining social stability. The clip shows armed PLA troops deployed in an anti-riot drill yelling “stop charging or do so at your own peril” in Cantonese through loudspeakers, at soldiers and participants who acted as protesters and rioters.
It is believed that two groups of PLA soldiers were pitted against each other in mock attack and anti-riot operations. This was part of a drill reportedly held at a military camp in Shenzhen last month.
The clip also shows soldiers unfurling red flags, similar to those used by Hong Kong police’s tactical unit and riot squad, with warnings such as “Stop charging or we use force” in both English and traditional Chinese. This is seen as another sign that the PLA troops’ show of force has been carefully orchestrated for a Hong Kong audience.
It also features the firing of tear gas, armored vehicles bulldozing makeshift roadblocks and water cannon vehicles spewing liquid to disperse “protesters”.
In another section on anti-terrorism, a replica of a Hong Kong taxicab is destroyed by ricocheting bullets when “terrorists” are roughed up by soldiers.
The voiceover hails the PLA garrison as a symbol of Beijing’s sovereignty and a buttress of the “One country, two systems” policy, as well as Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity. It said the force would execute President Xi Jinping’s orders to the fullest.
Beijing insisted that its troops in Hong Kong would “defend the city” when negotiating with the UK on the city’s future, but it agreed to confine troops to their camps – and they could only be deployed if requested by the Hong Kong government and approved by Beijing.
The PLA is also banned by a specific garrison law from encroaching on the city’s own turf, as Hong Kong is granted a “high degree of autonomy”.
Analysts say the PLA tends to flex its muscles, as also seen in its threats against Taiwan, but it is ultimately up to Xi to decide on whether they are deployed. They point out that while Hong Kong’s situation is worrying it is still far from anarchy or mayhem, and the call by patriotic mainlanders to let the troops out may not find much resonance in Zhongnanhai, as Xi and his advisers would be fully aware that would be an act of last resort which could prove to be very damaging.
Hong Kong’s “One country, two systems” policy would perish and the city’s ability to be a global financial center, plus Beijing’s investments and many economic initiatives would all be sunk if the PLA is ordered out.