The upheaval in Hong Kong has assumed an awesome dimension with China’s deployment of People’s Liberation Army troops ostensibly to clear the roads blockaded by anti-government protesters since June. This policing beyond borders is a decidedly controversial move as the soldiers, dressed in shorts and T-shirts, jogged their way from their barracks in Kowloon to the Hong Kong Baptist University where protesters had built barricades to stop riot police from entering the campus. For the past five months, the possibility of China’s military intervention and the spectre of Beijing’s crackdown on students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 have been dangerously real.
Was it really necessary for the soldiers to masquerade as early morning joggers to perform a duty that doesn’t really come within their remit? Going by the terms of deployment, the PLA, which stations approximately 12,000 of its staff in Hong Kong, can only be used to help with disaster relief or to maintain public order if requested by the local government. Specifically, this would entail peace-time operations. Ever since 1997, when the former British colony was returned to Chinese control, the national military has only been seen on the streets once, to help with cleanup operations after a typhoon last year. Small wonder that a group of protesters have promptly issued a statement titled “Clearance today, Crackdown tomorrow”, criticising the cleanup effort as an “ill-disguised attempt to intimidate” them.
“It is an entirely unacceptable act of invading Hong Kong’s promised autonomy,” the statement said. “This is a licence that opens up the perfect inroad for them to finally show their true colours.” As memories of Tiananmen still rankle, it is unlikely China will resort to extreme measures, which would incur widespread international condemnation. Beijing has repeatedly said it stands behind the Hong Kong government and police to handle the crisis. On Thursday the Chinese President, Xi Jinping made his most direct remarks on the crisis, calling on Hong Kong to “restore order” and “severely punish violent criminals”. As it turned out, the PLA marched in mufti barely 48 hours after. Is it possible that the PLA has stepped in in the wake of a dramatic escalation of the crisis after two protest-related deaths and dozens of injuries?
For five days, protesters paralysed transport links, vandalised mass transit stations and, in response to police storming several universities, turned campuses into fortresses, barricading entrances and stockpiling petrol bombs, bows, arrows, and catapults. Overshadowed in the mayhem is the core issue of extradition. The chief executive, Carrie Lam’s decision to keep the bill in abeyance has scarcely been able to defuse the crisis. To that has been added the fundamental clamour for the restoration of constitutional rights and freedom. Now, in the presence of the People’s Liberation Army, the outlook is direly fraught. Truth to tell, Ms Lam has her limitations.