Hong Kong, China – As Hong Kong plunges deeper into its worst political crisis since the territory was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, a rare press briefing from the government in Beijing has provided an insight into how it might respond to the mass protests that have rocked the city since June.
China’s top office for handling Hong Kong affairs resolutely condemned the protesters, restated its support for embattled leader Carrie Lam, opposed the violence, supported the police, and affirmed the importance of “One Country, Two Systems,” the governance framework that affords Hong Kong rights and freedoms unseen on the mainland.
China called the return of law and order its “most pressing priority”.
“Hong Kong cannot afford to have instability,” Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told reporters at the conference. “Should the chaos continue, it is the entire Hong Kong society that will suffer.”
Since early June, millions have flooded the streets of Hong Kong to protest against a controversial extradition bill that would allow suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial. Demonstrators fear the bill will threaten Hong Kong’s system of governance and undermine its judiciary.
While Lam has deemed the bill “dead”, she has yet to withdraw it, heightening public outrage and helping transform the protests into a larger movement against Chinese influence.
The enormous, largely peaceful, demonstrations have begun to deteriorate into skirmishes, pitting protesters against police who use tear gas, pepper spray and batons to break up the crowds.
As the protests continue to escalate in violence and frequency, attention is turning to what China might do next.
Compared with the tone of recent columns in state media, which have denounced the protesters as “violent extremists” and “traitors”, Beijing’s tone on Monday was noticeably softer.
“It was quite moderate in the context of what Chinese state media has been saying over the last few days where they’ve been ratcheting up the rhetoric towards the situation in Hong Kong using strong language,” said Adam Ni, a China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney.
“It didn’t denounce the whole protest. It tacitly accepted that peaceful [protest] was okay but when it turns violent it’s not, and that young people have economic grievances.”
However, academics caution that does not mean China will take a more conciliatory approach.
“The tone was intended to be soft,” said Samson Yuen, an assistant professor of political science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, who noted officials catered to the foreign press by answering questions and providing translations.
But, “it doesn’t mean they are going to be soft on Hong Kong with what’s happening.”
A ‘hybrid’ strategy
The protesters’ July 21 attack on the main office in Hong Kong of the Chinese government triggered condemnation from the mainland.
A day later the defence ministry described the situation as “intolerable”, and said that People’s Liberation Army troops would be available to contain the protests if Hong Kong’s authorities wanted their help.
The PLA maintains a garrison in the territory and Hong Kong law allows the government to request PLA assistance to maintain public order or for disaster relief.
Rather than adopt a clear strategy, Beijing seems to be adopting a “hybrid” approach, said Macquarie’s Ni.
On the one hand it “threatens with the ambiguity of potential intervention through military forces, but on the other, supporting the Hong Kong government in being tougher on protesters to deter [them],” he said.
“Beyond that, I don’t think Beijing has an effective strategy, at least in the short term to stop the protests.”
Rather than take a firmer approach, Alvin Yeung, the leader of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Civic Party, expects the territory’s government to repeat what it did with the 2014 Umbrella Movement when protesters occupied the city centre for 79 days, and allow the rallies to peter out.
By not responding to demands, “it feels like they are trying to drag out and exhaust energy and public support,” Yeung said.
As of now, few think China would actually allow the PLA to be used in Hong Kong, and the central government has said it has no plans to seek military assistance.
“They never really intended to use the military,” said Lingnan University’s Yuen, but rather “test the water” and “try to scare people.”
So far, the approach does not seem to have worked. China’s escalation of rhetoric and the Hong Kong’s administration reluctance to concede has only “strengthened the resolve of protesters,” he said.
Demonstrations are already slated to continue and expand in scope over the coming weeks.
“Hong Kong is not a military challenge,” said Ni. “It’s a political challenge … the costs and risks are simply too high, both domestically in Hong Kong, and as well in terms of Chinese international prestige”.
But on the other hand, it does not want to appear too conciliatory for fear of encouraging protesters.
“Military action [is] unlikely, at least at present, but the situation on the ground is quite fluid,” he added.
Referring to Tiananmen Square in 1989 when troops forcibly cleared the area of pro-democracy protesters leaving hundreds dead, Ni pointed out that while that might have seemed an irrational response to a political problem, China’s Communist Party still chose that path.
The party has “its own internal dynamics and rationales.
“I’d caution thinking that the party wouldn’t, but I think the likelihood is low at this point”.
In order to exert more control, Beijing is likely to lean more on Hong Kong’s local police force to contain the protests.
The force has about 30,000 personnel and has been criticised over its response to the protests.
“It’s more Beijing working directly together with the police,” said Lingnan University’s Yuen, citing the repeated praise of the Hong Kong police force and their families during Monday’s press conference.
“It seems the Hong Kong government is losing control over its own police force”.
This week, reports emerged that the police will begin to deploy water cannon with liquid dye from anti-riot vehicles if unrest does not ease by mid-August.
“They have no other ways than repression because they’re not going to reform the system,” Yuen said. “They’re establishing a more direct command over the police force.”
He noted there had also been cases of officers who failed to wear their warrant cards or produce them when asked, or had used foul language against protesters.
The force has already been the target of criticism over its handling of the rallies, accused of using excessive force against protesters, and colluding with gangs after a mob attack that left 49 people injured. One of the core demands of the protesters is an independent investigation into police brutality.
Yeung of the Civic Party voiced concern over Beijing’s backing for the police.
“The most worrying of all messages is the full support of the police force,” said Yeung. “Hong Kong police have obtained a licence to use all means to counter protesters.”
What comes next?
With the government refusing to make any concessions to protesters, neither side is ready to back down and compromise seems a long way off.
“The press conference (on Monday) was not for Hong Kong people,” said Bonnie Leung, the vice-convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, the organiser of the movement’s largest demonstrations, but rather a message to the Hong Kong police force and the Hong Kong government “to reassure them that they have Beijing’s full support.”
In light of the allegations of police brutality over the last couple months, Leung said Beijing’s support was a “dangerous” message.
“We can predict that the abuse of police power will escalate and continue,” she added.
Macquarie’s Ni says the contradictions at the heart of “One Country, Two Systems” means there is likely to be more pain on both sides before any compromise can be reached.
Even as China has attempted to align the territory ever-closer to the mainland, Hong Kong people have fought for the rights and freedoms that were enshrined in the system created more than 20 years ago when the territory reverted to China and the British finally left.
“Beijing has a long-term Hong Kong problem, predominantly of its own making,” Ni said. “A tough line could make the problem potentially even worse”.