On August 13, U.S. President Donald Trump posted an ominous tweet: “Our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!”
His pronouncement followed widespread reports about “armored personnel carriers (APC), trucks and other vehicles of the [People’s] Armed Police [PAP]… heading in the direction of Shenzhen over the weekend.” Shenzhen, in China’s Guangdong province, is the closest city on the mainland to Hong Kong. Satellite photos released to the media of Maxar’s WorldView appear to show “500 or more” PAP vehicles parked in a soccer stadium in Shenzhen, according to the Associated Press.
Chinese state media outlets carried photographs and videos of the vehicles traveling to Shenzhen. The Global Times reported that the PAP was massing in Shenzhen “for apparent large-scale exercises” – but both it and the People’s Daily pointedly noted that “The tasks and missions of the Armed Police include participating in dealing with rebellions, riots, serious violent and illegal incidents, terrorist attacks and other social security incidents.”
Given that Chinese authorities have labeled the ongoing protests in Hong Kong as “riots,” “serious violent crime,” and actions bordering on “terrorism,” the warning was clear.
As Hilton Yip notes for Foreign Policy, the PAP – and not the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – is actually the Chinese Communist Party’s weapon of choice for quelling domestic unrest. The PAP has put down protests not only in restive areas like Xinjiang and Tibet, but also in Han-majority parts of China where dissent crosses Beijing’s red line (like the organized protests in Wukan).
“With 1.5 million personnel stationed all over the country, the PAP is a crucial element of how the Chinese Communist Party maintains its control,” Yip writes. “…The PAP is equipped with its own artillery, helicopter, and special force units as well as anti-personnel vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles.”
So would Beijing send the PAP into Hong Kong to quell the protests by force? Under certain circumstances, absolutely – but such a move would carry immense cost in terms of both the CCP’s international image and Hong Kong’s future stability (not to mention the city’s reputation as a global business hub). Unless there’s a drastic change – think Hong Kong’s own government suddenly turning to side with the protesters, which is vanishingly unlikely – Beijing can avoid those risks by using a more subtle approach.
As demonstrated repeatedly in the South China Sea, China has perfected the use of “gray zone” tactics, which allow it to challenge unwanted behaviors by other parties without the open use of military force. In the South China Sea, that often means the use of the Chinese Coast Guard, rather than the PLA Navy, to patrol China’s claimed areas. But even beyond that, China makes full use of its “maritime militia” – nominally civilian fishing vessels whose crews and trained and funded by the Chinese military. As Andrew Erickson, an expert on the maritime militia, explains:
The elite units … incorporate marine industry workers (e.g., fishermen) directly into China’s armed forces. While retaining day jobs, they are organized and trained in the PAFMM [People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia] and often by China’s Navy, and activated on demand.
The end result is to create uncertainty among rival governments over whether an encountered vessel is an ordinary fishing boat or a maritime militia member that “operates under a direct military chain of command to conduct state-sponsored activities.”
This same tactic, as applied to Hong Kong, would be far less costly for Beijing than openly dispatching the PAP – much less the PLA – to put down the protests. This was exactly what many observers suspected was happening when gangs of men wearing white shirts attacked travelers – including protesters as well as ordinary commuters – in the Yuen Long subway station on July 21. The attackers, suspected triad members, “were waving Chinese national flags and placards reading, ‘Defend Yuen Long, defend our homeland,’” according to South China Morning Post. That sentiment, the apparent targeting of protesters, and the fact that it took the Hong Kong police 40 minutes to respond suggested to many that the attackers may have been hired by Chinese authorities and essentially given carte blanche to commit violence.
On August 5, during a general strike called in support of the protests, the white shirts struck again.
The use of such paid proxies – what Professor Lynette Ong terms “thugs-for-hire” – has a long history in China. Ong argues that these tactics are adopted under any of three conditions: “when state actions are illegal or policies are unpopular; when evasion of state responsibility is highly desirable; and when states are weak in their capacity or are less strong than their societies.” In the case of Hong Kong, the first and second conditions apply – direct state action against the protests would be extremely unpopular, thus making it “highly desirable” to disrupt such gatherings through alternative means while maintaining plausible deniability about Beijing’s involvement.
Another theory is that Chinese police are already present in Hong Kong – but not identifying themselves as such. Writing for China Brief, Willy Lam cited Hong Kong Baptist University political scientist Jean-Pierre Cabestan as saying that both PAP members and regular police officers have been “secretly added to the Hong Kong police force” since the 2014 Umbrella Movement. There are currently rumors on social media of Chinese security forces dressing as Hong Kong police officers or even posing as protesters. The Hong Kong police, at least, has admitted to deploying undercover officers among protesters. Protesters say that move left them “riddled with paranoia and rage” – and that paranoia sparked mob violence against two mainlanders “suspected of being undercover Chinese agents” during Tuesday’s protest at the Hong Kong airport.
The use of such tactics remains rumor and theory; like the white shirt attacks, there’s no hard evidence to back up the claims. Meanwhile, though, the CCP has been making active (and open) use of “United Front” tactics to muster support within the pro-Beijing sectors of Hong Kong. The hope is to undermine the protest movement from within Hong Kong society. On August 7, Zhang Xiaoming, the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Office of China’s State Council, gathered 500 Hong Kong business leaders and politicians to “call for support in safeguarding Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.” Zhang “urged the pro-government camp to ‘have no fears and stand up,’ using different ways to confront [protesters] as to safeguard the rule of law and restore stability,” SCMP reported.
China’s pressure is having an impact. In the clearest example, Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific announced that any of its staff who participated in the protests would be fired – a week after delivering the opposite message.
The upshot is that the CCP has many tools at its disposal to attempt to disrupt and eventually dismantle the Hong Kong protest movement without resorting to its military or paramilitary. That’s not to say deploying the PAP is unthinkable – we should never underestimate how far the CCP will go to ensure its political survival. But for now, at least, Beijing has other options that can conceivably achieve its main goal with far less cost.