Hong Kong’s leader warned Tuesday that if protests continue to escalate, she will be forced to ask the Chinese military to intervene.
The message is a chilling warning to the tens of thousands of protesters who have flooded Hong Kong’s streets every weekend for the last four months and whose pro-democracy demonstrations have brought the city to a standstill on multiple occasions.
Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said that the Chinese military will step in if the situation “becomes so bad”, though she stopped short of saying exactly what could trigger such a dramatic move.
“I still strongly feel that we should find the solutions ourselves,” Lam told reporters at a news conference. “That is also the position of the central government that Hong Kong should tackle the problem on her own but if the situation becomes so bad, then no options could be ruled out if we want Hong Kong to at least have another chance.”
The comments came after another weekend of mass protest marches that descended into violent clashes between riot police and protesters. To date over 2,000 people have been arrested for taking part in the demonstrations. The government last week enacted emergency legislation for the first time in almost 50 years to crack down on the wearing of face masks at protests and have so far arrested 77 people.
Critics worry that the emergency legislation, which gives Lam unlimited powers, could be used to further crackdown on civil liberties, with authorities already floating the possibility of curfews and internet censorship.
Beijing has been taking a back seat in relation to the protests in Hong Kong so far, fearful that military intervention would further damage the city’s reputation as a financial and commercial hub. However, China’s military is ready to act if necessary.
In August, China moved thousands of troops into Hong Kong in the dead of night, calling it a routine rotation. But a month later, envoys and security analysts claimed that the move was not a rotation, but a reinforcement, and that Beijing had quietly doubled its troop contingent inside the city-state.
On Sunday, for the first time in the four-month protest movement, a few hundred people targeted a People’s Liberation Army barracks in the city with laser lights. The protesters dispersed after the military unfurled a banner similar to that used by the police warning the protesters that if they didn’t stop, they would be detained.
It’s unlikely that the Chinese military will be seen on Hong Kong streets any time soon. Last month, Lam told a group of businesspeople that China had “absolutely no plan” to deploy People’s Liberation Army troops on Hong Kong streets.
“I don't believe there is widespread anxiety in the community that the PLA is going to be deployed very soon,” Emily Lau, a former pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong, told VICE News. “It is not something that people are very alarmed and disturbed by it. But people know at the back of their mind that if things get completely out of hand, of course, the Chinese will step in.”
Cover: Protesters throw back tear gas at police in Hong Kong, Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019. Shouting "Wearing mask is not a crime," tens of thousands of protesters braved the rain Sunday to march in central Hong Kong as a court rejected a second legal attempt to block a mask ban aimed at quashing violence during four months of pro-democracy rallies. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)