According to a new lengthy Bloomberg exploration outlining the possibilities that China's military could intervene against the now eight weeks-long increasingly violent protests that have gripped Hong Kong streets, a central question now on everyone's mind is, What will the Chinese military do?
Reports began appearing late last week of a Chinese security forces build-up just outside the semi-autonomous city, setting nerves on edge, and this week the chief of the Chinese military garrison in Hong Kong warned that the army stands ready to "protect" Chinese sovereignty. And then there was also the extremely provocative just released "riot control" video, showing People's Liberation Army (PLA) solders conducing a drill to invade a city in an imagined armed crackdown on protesters and unrest.
The Bloomberg report begins by noting that though Chinese army occupation of Hong Kong remains unlikely, it remains that "even smaller-scale intervention could spark a knee-jerk exodus from the city’s financial markets, drag down property prices and prompt international companies to reconsider their presence in the territory, analysts say." The major financial hub could suffer "irreparable damage" by such an exodus, along with severely weakening the “one country, two systems” concept in effect since 1997.
Chinese military officials, and especially state media have begun floating the argument for "military options" and intervention. Officials also recently described the US as a “black hand” behind the anti-Beijing protests - which began over a proposed extradition bill - something which the US state department dismissed as "ridiculous".
Below are some of the key takeaways from the Bloomberg report, which heavily quoted military analysts regarding PLA troop numbers stationed near Hong Kong.
Beijing doesn't want a Tiananmen "massacre" repeat
“Beijing is unlikely to use the PLA to quell the protests until it feels it has exhausted all other levers at its disposal,” Euan Graham, a former Asia analyst at the U.K.’s foreign office, now at an international Asian affairs think tank. “However much Xi Jinping fears chaos within China’s borders and that the use of the PLA is legitimate in his eyes, above all he does not want to have the stain of another Tiananmen massacre.”
Some 20,000 PLA officers in neighboring province
"A senior Trump administration official told reporters Tuesday that the White House was monitoring a congregation of Chinese troops or armed police gathering across the mainland border from Hong Kong. The nature of the build-up was unclear, and the report coincided with a swearing-in ceremony for 19,000 officers in the neighboring province of Guangdong."
6,000 PLA troops garrisoned in the city
"While the garrison has never been deployed at the request of Hong Kong’s government, it could in theory be called to action at a moment’s notice. An estimated 6,000 PLA troops are stationed in the city at any given time, with thousands more located across the border in Shenzhen, according to Rand Corp. The PLA’s Hong Kong headquarters sits in the city’s main business district, a few steps from Bank of America Tower."
Alternative to PLA intervention: the 600,000+ strong "People's Armed Police"
"One alternative form of intervention for Beijing might be the deployment of the People’s Armed Police, said Meia Nouwens, research fellow for Chinese defense policy and military modernization at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. The 660,000-member paramilitary force is often the agency China relies on to guard sensitive sites like Tiananmen and quell unrest in places like the predominately Muslim region of Xinjiang."
Major investment bank warns of "worse case scenario" in client letter
"Aside from calling in the PLA, other “worst-case scenario” options for Hong Kong include declaring martial law or a state of emergency, Kevin Lai, an economist at Daiwa Capital Markets Hong Kong Ltd., wrote in a July 25 report to clients. Intervention from Beijing could prompt the U.S. to revoke its preferential trading designation for Hong Kong, a potentially devastating blow for the city’s economy, Lai said in an interview."
“There may be a possibility that they need to call for the PLA,” Lai said, adding that the odds are still low. “If they do that, it would be very negative for Hong Kong.”
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Should such a "worse case scenario" unfold with a PLA crackdown on Hong Kong's streets, what would be the likely reaction from the White House?
Perhaps not as expected, as the Bloomberg report suggests:
Trump weighed in on Thursday in Washington, calling the Hong Kong protests “riots” -- the same label used by Chinese authorities. Trump said he doesn’t know what China’s attitude is on the matter. “Somebody said that at some point they’re going to want to stop that,” he said. “But that’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China.”
One analyst cited in the report aptly described, “If it does happen, Hong Kong as we know it will be over.”