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Troops at the border: A Chinese military intervention in Hong Kong?

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Video and satellite images released this week show Chinese military troops massing near the border with Hong Kong. Is it just an exercise in intimidation or is there a real threat of a Chinese military intervention?

Armoured personnel carriers are seen, one after the other, rolling along a Chinese highway. Their apparent destination is a sports stadium in the city of Shenzhen, just across the bay from Hong Kong.

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The video of what appears to be the deployment of Chinese military personnel to within miles of the Hong Kong border were published by Chinese state media earlier this week.

That was followed by satellite images, taken on Monday but released on Wednesday by US-based Maxar Technologies, showing what looked to be Chinese military vehicles parked inside the Shenzhen Bay Sports Centre, a 20,000-seat arena that once hosted a concert by English pop singer Jessie J, but may now be the staging post for a military operation by the People’s Liberation Army.

It is the latest sign that Beijing is prepared to take a more direct role in curtailing the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, or at least wants the main actors in those protests to believe it is willing to do so.

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‘Psychological warfare’

State media claimed the troop movements were part of previously scheduled military drills, unrelated to events in Hong Kong.

Professor Steve Tsang, Director of the SOAS China Institute in London, says there is no doubt the release of the video was designed to deliver a message.

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“It is clearly meant to intimidate people in Hong Kong and send a message that if the Hong Kong government can’t get things under control, they will intervene,” he told FRANCE 24.

Beijing has mostly watched from the sidelines as the protests in Hong Kong, triggered by a controversial extradition treaty with China amid a perceived general erosion of freedoms since the territory was handed back to China in 1997, have grown increasingly violent.

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However, as the Hong Kong government led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam seems increasingly unable to quell the unrest, China has stepped up its rhetoric and issued what to some are veiled threats of more direct action.

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On Wednesday, following violent clashes at Hong Kong’s international airport, China’s Hong Kong Liaison office compared the protesters to “terrorists”. Earlier this month, another slickly produced video was released by the PLA garrison in Hong Kong, showing armed troops undergoing “anti-riot” drills.

“Beijing probably thinks the images constitute the resolute backings Carrie Lam badly needs to restore order,” Dr Kenneth Chan, associate professor in political science at Hong Kong Baptist University, told FRANCE 24.

A satellite image appears to show a close up of Chinese military vehicles at Shenzhen Bay Sports Centre in China, close to the Hong Kong border.
A satellite image appears to show a close up of Chinese military vehicles at Shenzhen Bay Sports Centre in China, close to the Hong Kong border. Maxar Technologies / Handout via Reuters

“Talks and images about the deployment of troops also serve as a typical communist-style psychological warfare to isolate and marginalise the more radical elements of the ongoing protest in Hong Kong,” added Chan, who is also a former Civic Party lawmaker in the Hong Kong legislature.

‘Not an empty threat’

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Though Beijing’s goal may be primarily to intimidate, that does not mean it will not resort to military intervention if pushed to it, said Tsang.

“The Chinese would much prefer the protesters to simply go home. But if they think the authority of the Communist party is being challenged they will intervene,” he said.

“It is not an empty threat, it is a real threat.”

Escalating that threat is a potential flashpoint looming on the horizon.

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October 1 will mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, a day set to be celebrated with much pomp and ceremony on the mainland. If demonstrators in Hong Kong mark the occasion by taking to the streets in full force, it could prove a provocation too far for Beijing.

If China does intervene, that could mean troops pouring across the border, and also the deployment of the PLA garrison in Hong Kong, estimated at between 8,000 to 10,000 troops, which until now has remained firmly in its barracks.

Under the “one country, two systems” principle in which Hong Kong is granted a certain amount of political autonomy by the mainland, the PLA garrison can only intervene if requested to do so by the Hong Kong government.

However, such is the influence now exerted by Beijing, this legal hurdle is a mere technicality, according to Tsang.

“If the Chinese government wants the Hong Kong executive to request an intervention, then they will request it,” he said. “If China does intervene they (the troops stationed in China and the Hong Kong garrison) will be deployed together.”

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Resistance

For China, however, such a move is fraught with risk, and viewed by most experts as a last resort option for Beijing.

A military intervention would almost certainly be a death knell for the one country, two systems policy, marking a seismic shift in the geopolitical status quo in the region.

The international fallout, along with the risk to Hong Kong’s status as a business and finance hub, of such a move means Beijing is likely to explore other options first.

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“The total subjugation of the city by brute force will be fatal to both the city’s global financial status and China’s international standing,” believes Chan.

There is also the question of the resistance Chinese troops could face among a Hong Kong populace that has continued to take to the streetsdespite an often bloody security crackdown.

“It is all speculation but if they send in troops it could all be over in 24 hours, but it may not, there may be pockets of resistance that keep going,” said Tsang.

“A lot will depend on how much violence Chinese troops use in Hong Kong and that we don’t know.

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