Hong Kong’s protests are entering their sixth month and the territory is in the grip of the worst crisis it’s seen since the British handed back power over the territory to China in 1997. And now Beijing is weighing its options to quell the growing dissent, from enacting emergency laws to military intervention.
On Thursday, protesters once again brought much of Hong Kong to a standstill, making good on their pledge to suffocate the city until lawmakers meet their demands. It comes after a week of escalating violence that saw a police officer shoot a 21-year-old student and protesters set a man on fire. Riot police and protesters turned a university campus into a battleground where thousands of police rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets were met with petrol bombs, bricks and flaming arrows.
The demonstrations began back in June as a response to a now-withdrawn extradition bill, but have morphed into a much wider pro-democracy movement.
Beijing initially watched from a distance as the protests played out peacefully, but as clashes with police have turned violent, that low-key approach has been replaced with a much more active one.
Now, with local elections in Hong Kong just over a week away, Chinese President Xi Jinping faces a tough decision about what to do next.
Here are six ways Beijing could handle the escalating crisis.
Give in to protester demands
This is the least likely option on the table at the moment. Not only would it make Beijing look weak, but it would also ensure that any further effort to impose its will on Hong Kong would be met with similar resistance from activists.
Sure, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam has already withdrawn the extradition bill that kickstarted this movement, but there is no indication from the government that any of the remaining four demands will be met.
Take, for example, the call for Beijing to withdraw its characterization of the protests as riots. Rather than dialing down its rhetoric about the protests, the Chinese government has been inflaming the situation, this week labeling the protesters as “terrorists” and “murderers.”
While giving in completely is not an option, some in Hong Kong are calling on China to show a willingness to negotiate. Key to that would be setting up an independent inquiry into the police response to the riots.
“This will not stop the protests immediately but can calm things down, because the peaceful protesters are willing to calm down and give the investigation a chance,” Emily Lau, a former pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong told VICE News.
As the protests have continued, police action against protesters has become increasingly heavy-handed: female protesters have accused police of sexual assaulting them in custody, a journalist was blinded in one eye, and police have shot three protesters in the last six weeks.
“A fundamental step is for the Hong Kong government to compromise on some of the five demands, especially in relation to an independent inquiry into police response to the protest, and that has become a central issue,” Adam Ni, a China expert at Macquarie University in Sydney, told VICE News. “People are pissed off that the police have repeatedly brutalized protesters in a way that is considered unacceptable and disproportionate to the threat they face.”
But setting up an independent inquiry also looks unlikely, as Beijing has so far supported all the police action, even calling this week for a stronger crackdown on protesters.
Enact emergency legislation
When Carrie Lam imposed a ban on face masks last month — a move protesters met by taking to the streets in masks in even greater numbers — it was enacted under a colonial-era law called the Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO) .
It was last used more than 50 years ago and activists claim it essentially gives the government free reign to restrict human rights without any conditions or safeguards.
Beijing could force Lam to enact such legislation, and last week hinted at such a move.
It would allow for the imposition of total internet blackouts and arbitrary detention of protesters, give broad stop-and-search powers to police, and impose curfews on residents.
“The ERO is a deeply flawed piece of legislation,”Jan Wetzel, a senior legal advisor at Amnesty International, said recently. “Taken at face value, it grants the passing of emergency regulations to the executive alone, it trumps all other laws, and there is no requirement for periodic review.”
Pro-Beijing lawmakers have already urged Lam to use the full scope of the law, but so far the Hong Kong government has said it would try and resolve the crisis with resorting to such measures.
This is the option that analysts believe won’t happen, but that people in Hong Kong believe is a real possibility.
“People are genuinely worried about Beijing deploying People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops to quell the unrest due to memories of the Tiananmen Square crackdown,” Lau said.
Beijing has two options when it comes to military intervention. The first would mean mobilizing the PLA garrison in Hong Kong, which stands at around 12,000 troops. The second option would be deploying the People’s Armed Police, a Chinese paramilitary police force primarily responsible for internal security, riot control and maintaining order on the mainland.
Analysts have generally dismissed the possibility of military intervention, given the hugely negative impact it would have on China and Hong Kong, and especially on the international financial markets that are essential to Hong Kong’s success. But that hasn’t stopped China from making it very clear that it could happen at any time.
China has made very public statements on the readiness of its military to intervene and has quietly doubled its troop levels in Hong Kong. It has also conducted military exercises just across the border simulating how the army would respond to protests.
The nationalistic Global Times issued this stark warning in an editorial on Monday, supporting the Hong Kong police: “When necessary, the People’s Armed Police Force and the People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison will back you up.”
But military intervention is only likely if the protests become so unbearable for Hong Kongers themselves that they turn on the protesters and blame them for the chaos that is engulfing the city.
“The city will descend further into chaos and become ungovernable. But that may well be what China’s leaders want: an excuse to deploy security forces and impose direct control over the city,” Minxin Pei, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, wrote in for Project Syndicate recently.
Cancel next week’s elections
Beijing could cancel next week’s local assembly elections as a way to cement the pro-China makeup of the body and prevent a schism from forming within the government.
“There's a concern the government may postpone the District Council election to be held on November 24,” Lau said. “If so, it would cause a strong objection because many people are very keen to vote.”
But already the government has moved to ensure at least one prominent pro-democracy activist won’t be voted in. Last month it barred Joshua Wong from running, claiming he had not abandoned the belief that independence could be an option for Hong Kong's future.
This week, in an editorial in the People’s Daily, a Beijing mouthpiece, the government warned that the elections should not go ahead unless calm is restored to the streets of Hong Kong.
Playing the long game
While it may not be obvious, Beijing may have already laid out its strategy for dealing with Hong Kong — and is already implementing it.
At the fourth meeting of the 19th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China in October, Xi made it very clear that he wanted to tighten his grip on the former British colony at any cost.
The communique from the meeting said Beijing planned to “control and rule” Hong Kong using “all the powers vested in [it] under the constitution and the Basic Law,” the mini-constitution that defines Hong Kong’s status.
It added that it will “build and improve a legal system and enforcement mechanism to defend national security” in Hong Kong.
To achieve this goal, Beijing is employing a wide array of tactics, according to Ni, including propaganda, threatening messages, militaristic shows of force, infrastructure projects, and punishing Western companies for supporting the protests (including the NBA and Apple).
By continuing to pressure Lam and the Hong Kong authorities to come down harder on protesters, or possibly enact the emergency legislation, Beijing can continue to appear to be taking a back seat, all the while implementing its long-term goal.
“Though the details of the plan have yet to be worked out, it seems evident that China’s leaders intend to gut the Basic Law, exercise more direct control over the appointment of key officials, weaken or eliminate Hong Kong’s judicial independence, curtail civil liberties, and suppress political dissent, including through ideological indoctrination,” Pei said.
“In other words, they have decided effectively to abandon the “one country, two systems” model, which Deng Xiaoping promised to uphold for 50 years after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.”
Cover: A student hurls a molotov cocktail into a train parked inside the Chinese University MTR station in Hong Kong, Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2019. Protesters in Hong Kong battled police on multiple fronts on Tuesday, from major disruptions during the morning rush hour to a late-night standoff at a prominent university, as the 5-month-old anti-government movement takes an increasingly violent turn. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)