Will Xi Jinping Deploy the PLA Garrison to Quell Hong Kong’s “Turmoil”?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 15

Image: Zhang Xiaoming (center), Director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the PRC State Council, presiding over a meeting of “patriotic” Hong Kong community leaders held in Shenzhen on August 7. Zhang warned about the need to “stop the turmoil and control the chaos” in Hong Kong. Wang Zhimin (right), Director of the PRC Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong, was also present. (Source: China News)

Introduction: The CCP Confronts “Turmoil” in Hong Kong

A central question surrounding the Hong Kong protests is whether People’s Republic of China (PRC) President and Commander-in-Chief Xi Jinping will deploy the local People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Garrison to quell the “turmoil” in the Special Administration Region (SAR). Under the instructions of late patriarch Deng Xiaoping, who negotiated Hong Kong’s 1997 change of sovereignty with then-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, a garrison of an estimated 6,000 troops is permanently stationed in the territory. The anti-government agitations in Hong Kong started in early June against the introduction of an “Extradition Bill,” which would send suspected fugitives hiding in the SAR back to the mainland for trial (China Brief, June 26). Given that SAR Chief Executive Carrie Lam has indefinitely shelved the bill—although she has refused to irrevocably withdraw it—the goals of the protestors have morphed into two broad demands: to investigate police violence, and more importantly, to realize the civil and democratic rights guaranteed in the Beijing-approved Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.

Although the number of protestors—who climaxed at 2 million in a June 16 march—has declined to the hundreds of thousands, they have fine-tuned their actions and put their emphasis on strategic targets such as staging rallies at the Hong Kong Airport, blocking up highways and tunnels, and barricading police stations. The identity of the protestors has been well hidden, but there is a consensus among observers that Hong Kong’s college and even high-school students are presenting the biggest challenge to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since 1997. While most of the demonstrators have hewed to a strict ethos of non-violence, a radical fringe believes in using varying degrees of force to make their point—especially during confrontations with anti-riot squads from a police force prone to excessive violence. So far, the police have fired more than 2,000 tear-gas canisters and detained a few hundred protestors for alleged crimes including illegal assembly, attacking law-enforcement officials, and rioting. On August 5, when protestors attempted to stage a territory-wide strike, 148 of the “trouble-makers” were arrested (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], September 11; South China Morning Post, August 9; Hong Kong Economic Times, August 6).

The situation has been exacerbated by the fact that the city administration under Carrie Lam has refused to engage in a dialogue with the protestors. The SAR government has even vetoed the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry to examine police misbehavior. In her infrequent public appearances, Lam has doubled down on the protestors’ responsibility for pushing Hong Kong to “the verge of a very dangerous situation” (HK01.com, August 5; VOA Cantonese, August 5). Since June, the official PRC media has labelled the “turmoil” in Hong Kong as an example of a “color revolution”—meaning that “hostile foreign forces” (a code word for the United States) are colluding with anti-Beijing elements in the SAR to challenge the “one country, two systems” model and even to undermine CCP rule in mainland China (Global Times, August 10; People’s Daily, August 8; Xinhua, August 7).

The Narrative of “Color Revolutions” and Other Signals from Beijing

In a rare speech early this month in Shenzhen to a gathering of 500 “patriotic” community leaders from Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming (张晓明), the ministerial-level Director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the PRC State Council, said that the Hong Kong protests carried “obvious characteristics of color revolution” and that the top priority of both Beijing and the SAR government was to zhibaozhiluan (止暴制乱), or “stop the turmoil and control the chaos.” “Turmoil” and “chaos” were the same words Beijing used to describe the pro-democracy student demonstrations in 1989 (China Brief, June 4). While Zhang made no reference to the use of the PLA, he quoted Deng on the fact that the Hong Kong Garrison was set up to “safeguard national security.” Deng was also quoted as saying that “if there are attempts to turn Hong Kong into ‘a base for opposing the mainland under the guise of ‘democracy’,” then Beijing would have no choice but to intervene in Hong Kong affairs (Ming Pao, August 8; RTHK.HK, August 7; China News Service, August 7).

For the first time since 1997, the Commander of the Hong Kong Garrison has issued a stern warning to the public. General Chen Daoxiong (陈道祥) said in late July that the garrison would not tolerate the protesters’ violent tactics: “We strongly condemn the extremely violent incidents which have impinged upon the base line of ‘one country, two systems.’” At the same time, the garrison’s public relations video was updated to include footages of the Hong Kong-based soldiers in anti-riot operations. Under the Basic Law, the garrison could be deployed to restore order if the SAR government makes such a request to the central government, or if the PRC National People’s Congress declares a state of emergency in Hong Kong (Thestandnews.com [Hong Kong], July 31; Phoenix TV, July 31; New York Times Chinese Edition, July 26).

Reasons for Beijing to Keep the PLA in its Barracks

According to conversations that this author has had with three party sources familiar with Beijing’s Hong Kong policy, it is unlikely that Xi, the Chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission, will give the go-ahead for the Hong Kong Garrison to quash the “turmoil.” [1] Under such a scenario, the CCP administration—and particularly Xi—would stand to lose a lot of face. It would demonstrate that, after 22 years of rule, the CCP has failed to win hearts and minds among Hong Kong’s 7.5 million residents; and overt intervention would show Beijing resorting to brute force to quell opposition to PRC rule. It is possible that Washington might react by cancelling the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act, which grants Hong Kong the status of a separate customs territory apart from the mainland (Harbourtimes.com [Hong Kong], August 23; Asia Times, June 24).

Even more devastating would be the economic fallout in both Hong Kong and the mainland. Despite the rise of Shanghai as a regional financial center, the Chinese economy is still dependent on Hong Kong to raise money for its ambitious modernization programs. In 2018, 71.5 per cent of the foreign direct investment absorbed by China came through Hong Kong. Moreover, Chinese companies are now the biggest investors in the SAR: as of the end of 2018, mainland companies, including state-owned enterprises, took up 67.5 percent of the marketization of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (Mofcom.gov.cn, January 15; Hong Kong Stock Exchange Fact Book 2018).

Covert Deployment of Mainland Police into Hong Kong

Moreover, Beijing has a better option: much of the same impact as deploying the PLA’s Hong Kong Garrison can be achieved through surreptitiously stationing in the SAR Chinese police officers from neighboring Guangdong Province, who have started working seamlessly with indigenous police in Hong Kong. During one recent anti-riot operation, a squad officer was overhead addressing his colleagues as tongzhimen (同志们), or “comrades”—a mainland Chinese term almost never used in Hong Kong (HKCNEWS.com, August 8; AM730.com.hk, August 6; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], July 29).

According to Hong Kong Baptist University political scientist Jean-Pierre Cabestan, since the Umbrella Movement of 2014, Beijing has deployed police—as well as members of the paramilitary People’s Armed Police (PAP)—into Hong Kong. “Beijing has secretly added to the Hong Kong police force, which is 30,000-strong, a number of policemen who speak Cantonese like Hong Kong from neighbouring Guangdong province, so that they can better integrate,” Cabestan said. Cabestan also believes that, while the Hong Kong police follow Carrie Lam’s orders on paper, “in reality, they listen to instructions from Beijing via the Central Liaison Office (CLO).” [2] The CLO is the mission of the Central Government in Hong Kong, in addition to acting as the leadership center for the underground Chinese Communist Party of Hong Kong (China Brief, July 31).

Image: PRC state media has signalled the possibility of PAP intervention in Hong Kong, as with this August 10 video clip of PAP armored vehicles in convoy near Shenzhen. The accompanying text noted that, under PRC law, “the [PAP] shall participate in handling riots, disturbances, severe violent crimes, terrorist attacks, and other incidents disturbing social peace.” (Source: CGTN Twitter)

That Chinese law-enforcement officers based in the Pearl River Delta might be called upon to suppress flare-ups of disorder in Hong Kong was demonstrated on August 6, when some 12,000 Shenzhen-based police staged anti-riot operations. The officers were seen on local TV subduing young scofflaws dressed in black T-shirts, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Hong Kong protestors (DWNews.com, August 6; South China Morning Post, August 6). Lest anyone miss the point, PRC media has also signalled potential new deployments of PRC police into Hong Kong with video footage of PAP vehicle convoys on the move near Shenzhen (see accompanying image).

Beijing’s Most Likely Courses of Action

According to the Chinese sources cited above, the CCP administration’s policy is to wait for public opinion to turn. With Beijing stonewalling their demands, the young protestors could resort to more violent tactics to disrupt law and order—and thereby end up alienating large swathes of Hong Kong’s silent majority. Carrie Lam and her colleagues also hope that declining economic numbers will pit members of the Hong Kong business community—many of whom are diehard opponents of the Extradition Bill—against the protestors. According to the SAR government, Hong Kong’s export, retail and tourism sectors have been hard hit: for example, given that 22 countries have issued travel alerts on Hong Kong, tourist arrivals in the SAR in early August declined year on year by 31 percent (BBC.com, August 9; Ming Pao, August 9; HKTVB, August 8).

Short of deploying mainland police, the CCP leadership may also be expected to use medium- to long-term efforts to change the political landscape of Hong Kong. Firstly, more power will be given to the CLO, which is grooming a cadre of Cantonese-speaking loyalists—including underground Communist Party members—for senior slots in the SAR administration. Since Carrie Lam became a lame duck following her inept selling of the Extradition Bill, more major policy initiatives in the territory seem to be coming from the CLO. The wily and ambitious head of the CLO, Wang Zhimin (王志民), who is a member of the CCP’s ruling Central Committee, could become the de facto principal policymaker of the SAR (Apple Daily, July 15; Thestandnews.com, July 11).

In the longer term, Beijing’s most potent weapon is to change the make-up of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million strong population. Since the change of sovereignty in 1997, some 1.5 million mainlanders have been given permanent residence and voting rights in the SAR. Opinion polls on the political inclinations of these new immigrants have shown they are more sympathetic toward Beijing’s harsh line of taming Hong Kong’s democratic aspirations. Both Beijing and the SAR government are encouraging Hong Kong’s graduates and young professionals to build their careers in the Pearl River Delta and other Chinese cities. As an incentive, Hong Kongers working north of the border might be able to enjoy tax concessions and even rental subsidies (PPRD.org.cn, June 26; Radio French International, February 20; HK01.com, February 19).

Promoting “patriotic education” is also a major focus of Beijing’s policy toward the SAR. At a press conference early this month, a spokesperson for the Hong Kong Macao Affairs Office said “there are indeed problems in the national education” provided Hong Kong youths. He added that through patriotic education, “Hong Kong people should from a young age realize comprehensively, deeply and objectively the relationship between themselves and the nation and the people—and to understand their history and culture” (Xinhua, August 6; Global Times, August 5). However, given the fact that the anti-Extradition Bill and pro-democracy movement has fully exposed the many inadequacies of the CCP order, it is difficult to imagine how Beijing could successfully inculcate nationalism and fealty to the party among Hong Kong’s increasingly rebellious youths.

Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation, and a regular contributor to China Brief. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department, and the Master’s Program in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (2015). His latest book, The Fight for China’s Future, was released by Routledge Publishing in July 2019. 


[1] Author’s telephone and e-mail interviews with three Beijing cadres with the rank of department head or above, August 5 and 6.

[2] Author’s e-mail interview with Professor Cabestan, August 8.