A few days after another round of violent protests rocked Hong Kong, Beijing on Wednesday issued its harshest warning yet to the citizens of Hong Kong: It sought to remind them that Beijing has the authority to mobilize the People's Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong if it felt that the central government's authority was threatened.
The New York Times reports that the warning was part of the unveiling of the Communist Party's new "defense strategy" which relied heavily on demonizing the western powers - an oblique reference to the US and the UK - for encouraging the protests.
Col. Wu Qian
Citing the Sunday protests, Senior Col. Wu Qian, a spokesman for China's defense ministry, implied that the destructive behavior - protesters painted the central government's liaison office with graffiti, the latest example of the extradition bill protests leading to the vandalism of government buildings - was swiftly straining the patience of Beijing.
"The behavior of some radical protesters challenges the central government’s authority, touching on the bottom line principle of 'one country, two systems,'" Colonel Wu said during a news conference in Beijing where he laid out the government's new strategy. "That absolutely cannot be tolerated."
When pressed, Wu said that "Article 14 of the Garrison Law has clear stipulations," and refused to elaborate, the SCMP reports.
Hong Kong's government would need to request the garrison's assistance, like it does during a natural disaster.
In response, a spokesman for the Hong Kong government said on Wednesday that the city was "fully capable" of dealing with its own affairs.
"There is no need to ask for assistance from the garrison," he said.
Eric Chan Kwok-ki, director of the Chief Executive’s Office, dismissed Wu's reference to the Garrison law, suggesting that it wasn't a threat.
"This is nothing new," he said. "The Hong Kong government has no plan to seek help from the [PLA Hong Kong] garrison in accordance with that provision."
The press conference coincided with the release of a new defense report - the first to be published since the beginning of Xi Jinping's second term - that identified these same 'western powers' as a threat to global stability. It's one of the clearest signs yet that Beijing views the US as its key geopolitical adversary, and is ready to strike back should Washington continue to 'support' Taiwan by supplying it with advanced arms. The paper restated Beijing's goal of eventually presiding over the 'reunification' of Taiwan with mainland China - and notably didn't rule out the use of force.
Notably, the paper accused the US of jeopardizing international stability by expanding its nuclear arsenal, boost its missile defenses and cyberwarfare capabilities and weaponize outer space (remember the Space Force?).
The defense plan also criticized Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen's Democratic Progressive Party for "stepping up efforts to sever the connection with the mainland." Hong Kong, of course, is governed by officials selected by Beijing, but the protests have posed their own unique problems for the Communist Party.
Circling back to the press conference, Col. Wu cited the specific laws detailing relations between Hong Kong and Beijing that would allow the PLA to intervene. Notably, Hong Kong wasn't specifically mentioned in China's new defense paper, but Wu relayed the above-mentioned warning and the Communist Party's view on the situation in response to a question asked by the 'press'. Not long before Wu spoke, Hong Kong police arrested six men for partaking in Sunday's protests and a similarly violent episode that took place on July 1. Some of these men reportedly had links to 'triad' criminal gangs.
Protests have been ongoing in Hong Kong since mid-June, in response to the HK government's fast-tracking of a controversial extradition bill that would have empowered Beijing to extradite people from Hong Kong (both citizens and people just passing through) something that would give it unprecedented powers to crack down on dissidents.
If the PLA were to 'intervene' in the protests, local financial markets would probably melt down (HK's stock market has performed remarkably well despite the protests). Western powers would also condemn China's actions, and it might impact the prospects for a permanent trade truce to the US. But would the West actually do anything to stop them? That's extremely unlikely.