SHENZHEN/HONG KONG—For more than two weeks, rows of armored vehicles have been parked outside and within the walls of a stadium in Shenzhen. A contingent of the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary force that specializes in riot control and security matters, has been stationed within the sporting ground. The Global Times, one of the Chinese government’s state-run media outlets, says that the security forces are there for drills. Yet as unrest in Hong Kong escalates with every passing weekend, and occasional episodes that remind Hong Kongers of the 1989 military crackdown at Tiananmen Square, it’s natural to wonder: is Beijing about to send in its own forces, maybe even the PLA—the People’s Liberation Army?
Military intervention ahead of October 1—the 70th National Day for China—would be massively embarrassing for Beijing. A massive military parade may have been being planned for China’s capital, but flexing actual military muscle in Hong Kong would mean the Chinese Communist Party acknowledging that its proxies in the city don’t have a grip on the populace. And while already dealing with Donald Trump’s trade war, the CCP likely would face new international sanctions just as it did after 1989.
So, with little more than a month left before celebrations in Beijing kick off, the CCP won’t be sending its tanks into Hong Kong; it will be sending in the tycoons.
We’ve already seen Beijing find success on this front. Pressure on Hong Kong’s flagship airline, Cathay Pacific, has led to staff members being sacked after it became public that they took part in or supported demonstrations in the city. CEO Rupert Hogg, as well as one of his deputies, resigned after Beijing turned the screws on the company, like demanding information on all crew that fly into Chinese airspace. At the time, Chinese state media CCTV broke the news.
Other companies have been on Beijing’s hit list too. The big four accounting firms—KPMG, Ernst & Young, Deloitte, and PricewaterhouseCoopers—were attacked in Chinese media for being slow to denounce the protests in Hong Kong after an anonymous group of their employees took out a full-page ad in the local newspaper Apple Daily, speaking of a “yearning for democracy and freedom” in the city. Predictably, the firms distanced themselves from their staff members’ actions.
Beijing is reframing the protests by posing one question to Hong Kongers: How many of you are willing to be fired for your beliefs?
The CCP knows it can’t win hearts and minds in the city, and tanks and troops would only exacerbate the ideological divide, so it is toying with the idea of removing Hong Kong’s status as a key financial conduit for China. Quietly, the State Council in Beijing published a paper in mid-August proposing that Shenzhen become an international city—and replace Hong Kong. The paper mentioned that Shenzhen will be the first city in China to have a “fair and just environment for democracy and rule of law,” suggesting that Shenzhen, not Hong Kong, will undergo political reform that is yet to be defined, but may include some sort of democratic component. Beijing’s gambit is to lure multinational corporations to shift their Asia-Pacific headquarters north of the border (though the worry is that any favorable conditions for corporations could evaporate as quickly as they emerged).
With the Hong Kong Police Force and hired thugs as the CCP’s sluggers on the streets, squeezes on big businesses, and the occasional warning of economic collapse, Beijing surely believes it has the blackshirts of Hong Kong on a slow burn.
Other measures are being used, too. Hong Kong’s current chief executive, Carrie Lam, gave a statement to the press on Tuesday suggesting that she could invoke a colonial-era law to give herself powers to authorize arrests, shut down telecommunications, censor media, seize property, and change or enact laws if the city falls into an emergency state. In other words, instead of facing the people of Hong Kong to weigh their demands, Lam is prepared to pare away many qualities that set Hong Kong apart from mainland China under CCP rule—a relatively free press, an uncensored internet, protections for personal property, and other rights.
And there’s more. A website has been set up—possibly by Carrie Lam’s predecessor, former chief executive C.Y. Leung, who began offering cash rewards for information about blackshirts in posts on his Facebook page earlier this month—to hunt down protesters who have been involved in various anti-government actions.
Information leading to convictions of those who splattered black paint on the CCP’s emblem is worth more than $127,000 (HK$1,000,000). The bounty for Brian Leung—the only protester who unmasked himself to give a speech after blackshirts swarmed the legislature, damaging its chambers and effectively preventing the widely opposed extradition bill from being passed—is nearly $64,000 (HK$500,000). (Leung has already left the city for the United States.) In all, those behind the website seek convictions related to 30 incidents, and apparently have plenty of cash to entice anyone with information to come forward.
And yet the resistance continues. Clashes with the police take place almost every Saturday and Sunday now, sometimes involving blackshirts who are as young as 10 or 12 years old. This past weekend, protesters targeted 50 “smart” lampposts that they believed may contain hardware for surveillance technology like facial recognition, damaging or sawing down 20 of them, and then disassembling some to read their guts.
Last Friday, thousands of Hong Kongers formed a human chain 30 miles long, following tram tracks, subway lines, the harbor, and even running up an iconic mountain. Now, at 10 p.m. every evening, some people open their windows to shout protest slogans, while strangers answer back with yells that pierce through the night. The scale of this is still nothing like the massive rallies that have repeatedly clogged Hong Kong’s streets, but every night, more voices join in.
Protesters have already considered the possibility of Beijing’s military intervention in the city and outlined a simple course of action: If communications are cut and Chinese troops enter the city, then everyone is supposed to stay home and adhere to the curfew. The blackshirts have no interest in cultivating martyrs, and after several suicides that were in varying degrees related to the protests, the line “we can’t lose even one” has been one of the persistent mottoes.
Even as divisive actions are being executed to cleave Hong Kongers away from supporting the blackshirt movement, people in the city are still looking out for each other and seeking even the smallest ways to make their voices heard.