How far will China go to end Hong Kong’s unrest, now in its 13th week and still growing? Senior officials have spoken not only of “terrorist acts” but of “colour revolution characteristics”, making it clear that they have ruled out compromise.

So far they have relied on the Hong Kong government to suppress the protests, but the banning of rallies, brutal police tactics, thug attacks, the arrests of high-profile activists and metro line closures have failed to dampen the unrest. On Sunday, thousands of activists descended on the airport.

“They are trying very hard to scare people off the streets. It has only made people angrier”, – said Ho-fung Hung of Johns Hopkins University, whose research areas include protest in China.

That has stirred fears that the authorities will resort to more extreme measures as 1 October approaches. Many see the date as Beijing’s deadline for ending the unrest, believing it would not tolerate anything overshadowing nationwide celebrations for the 70th anniversary of Communist rule in China.

Memories of 1989’s crackdown on Tiananmen Square’s pro-reform movement shadow the current unrest, raising the question of how far authorities will go to crush the challenge.

Margaret Ng, a pro-democracy activist former legislator, said that protesters were very aware of the risks. “Going forward may put them in the fire, but stopping is not going to save them”, – she said.

For Beijing, “the question is whether they want to destroy Hong Kong. If they interfere directly it spells the end of one country, two systems”.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, an expert on Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University, said that this arrangement – which is supposed to guarantee the region a high degree of autonomy – is useful to Beijing too.

But he added: “It’s hard for the Communist party not to be tempted to interfere. It’s a political organisation, not just about management. On the one hand they are overconfident and on the other they are paranoid. They want to prevent Hong Kong becoming a base for subversion, and that trumps everything”.

The Hong Kong government has hinted that it may invoke the emergency regulations ordinance which hands wide powers to the chief executive. Some fear it could be used to shut down the internet or allow mass detentions over 1 October to prevent protests that day.

Officials and pro-establishment politicians have suggested limited uses of emergency powers, such as banning masks or targeting sites or platforms the activists use.

Simon Young, a professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, noted that some restraints also remained on the executive. Courts can issue injunctions to halt measures and the legislative council can amend regulations, but it is in recess and not due to sit again until October. It is also stacked in Beijing’s favour.

Opponents say using legislation designed to suspend basic rights is inherently drastic and would end Hong Kong’s status as Asia’s premier financial centre. Limited measures would also probably escalate.

“The ordinance is not an across-the-board declaration of martial law. It’s piecemeal, as required, but with very sweeping powers,” said Steve Tsang, the director of the Soas China institute.

“Once you invoke it you have crossed a threshold and it is far harder for the government to exercise self-restraint … I think they see it as a way to avoid sending in troops without realising that it will finally result in the People’s Liberation Army [PLA] and People’s Armed Police [PAP] coming in”.

The region’s Basic Law allows the Hong Kong government to request the help of the PLA garrison in the city. Troops arrived across the border this week, though state media said it was a regular rotation.

Some wonder if soldiers might initially be used to guard buildings such as the Central Liaison Office, with the justification that they are central government institutions and Hong Kong police are overstretched.

The paramilitary police, also part of the armed forces, would be a more obvious choice because their job is domestic security. State media have covered their recent drills near the border heavily, but because they are not stationed in Hong Kong their use would require a national-level order saying that national laws applied, Young said.

That would leave one country, two systems dead in the water, and might not end unrest. There is growing talk of the “Northern Irelandisation” of the city, a long-term troop presence on the streets with continuing resistance and inevitable violence.

“The PAP are trained to beat people, not to crush them with tanks”, – Tsang said. “But it will be a painful messy process that will provoke stronger international responses than I think Beijing is calculating at the moment”.

Joel Wuthnow at the centre for the study of Chinese military affairs at the National Defense University in Washington suggested that the use of Chinese troops was Beijing’s last option. He told a Center for Strategic and International Studies podcast that it would look terrible and undercut China’s narrative, citing the Tank Man photograph from 1989: “Everyone has a smartphone … You could have hundreds of tank men and women, unarmed men and women standing in front of heavily armed Chinese troops”.

A deployment could also easily escalate, he said. “You can’t rule out the possibility of an inadvertent incident, something that spins out of control”.

The Guardian

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