27 February 2020
PLA soldiers participating in an anti-riot drill in Shenzhen early this year. Photo: Internet
PLA soldiers participating in an anti-riot drill in Shenzhen early this year. Photo: Internet

Beijing weighed consequence of PLA involvement

Both Beijing and the SAR government were caught off guard. They never thought the planned protests in Hong Kong would unfold at such lightning speed, and with such impact.

When the Chinese parliament unveiled its decision on electoral reform at the end of August, officials on both sides of the border were somehow surprised by the almost benign reaction from the Hong Kong people. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress had ruled out public nomination for the candidates in the 2017 chief executive election, a key demand of the pan-democratic camp.

In a meeting with pro-Beijing Hong Kong lawmakers shortly after the release of the decision, NPC Standing Committee Chairman Zhang Dejiang, who is also in charge of the central authorities’ task force on Hong Kong and Macau affairs, reportedly remarked that the reaction from the territory was far milder than he expected.

Observers said back then that Beijing could just let the pro-democracy leaders push through with their Occupy Central campaign and boycott of classes, and the protests would soon die down amid the lack of public support.

But how wrong they were.

The student sit-ins last Friday escalated into an all-out protest with the police using pepper sprays to disperse the students. Following the initial clashes, which resulted in arrests and injuries, protest leaders launched the Occupy Central campaign days ahead of schedule. And soon the streets of Admiralty and Central were filled with protesters. 

A source from the pro-establishment camp told Ming Pao Daily that Beijing had long prepared for any eventuality, and in the worst case scenario, could even deploy troops from the People’s Liberation Army’s Hong Kong Garrison to restore order.

It is said that as early as June Beijing has sent batches of officials to the territory to gauge the situation and assess the likely consequence of PLA’s involvement in quashing the civil disobedience movement should there be a need to do so.

But the source stressed that even though the current scale of protests is way beyond the SAR government’s expectations, local policemen can still handle the situation without any external support.

This coincides with the release of photos showing PLA soldiers conducting anti-riot drills at a site in Shenzhen’s Nanshan District, which is believed to be serving as back-up barracks for the PLA Hong Kong Garrison.

In a commentary released on its website Monday, the Global Times, a hardcore propaganda newspaper under the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, says “military involvement to ensure the implementation of the constitution is the normal practice of all countries”. The article goes on to suggest that if the Hong Kong police cannot handle the protests, the People’s Armed Police — China’s police and law enforcement force — can cross the border at any time to provide support.

The newspaper says there won’t be any legal barriers for the deployment as the Basic Law stipulates that the Chinese government can implement national laws in Hong Kong and conduct law enforcement should the NPC declares a state of emergency in the territory.

The commentary has been widely circulated on Weibo and other social networking platforms on the mainland with some netizens urging Beijing to mount resolute crackdowns on “traitors” to genuinely “recover” Hong Kong. The newspaper later deleted the article without providing any explanation.

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The People’s Liberation Army building (right) looms above the closed Connaught Road in Central early Monday. Photo: AFP

EJ Insight writer