Beijing unlikely to intervene in Hong Kong but police under pressure to end protests, analysts say

Liu Zhen

Beijing is unlikely to directly intervene in Hong Kong, but pressure is mounting on the city’s police to put an immediate end to months of anti-government protests, according to analysts.

The central government stepped up its rhetoric on Monday, warning that escalating violence by the protesters, especially against police, was showing “signs of terrorism”.

Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) under the State Council, also called on the city’s police to end “violent criminal activity” by demonstrators “with no hesitation or mercy”.

China amended its counterterrorism law in 2016 to broaden the definition of terrorist activities, but the law is not applicable to Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” arrangement. The city, meanwhile, does not have its own law on national security.

Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said he had not seen “any evidence of terrorism of the sort I would usually look at within the context of the protests in Hong Kong”.

He added that Beijing’s claim there were “signs of terrorism” was based on its own analysis of what constituted terrorism – meaning anything that went against the government or the state would be seen as an act of political violence and, in turn, terrorism.

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“Beijing is to some degree also grandstanding as the political winds back home in China appear to be increasingly angry against the protesters, and taking a hard line like this over the protesters plays well,” he said. “This escalatory rhetoric reflects Beijing’s unhappiness with what is going on and the Hong Kong government’s inability to bring this situation to a conclusion.”

Pantucci said he did not believe it was an attempt by Beijing to pave the way for intervention, but “it does certainly provide cover for local authorities to continue on the path they are on”.

Li Wei, a counterterrorism expert at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, said Monday’s statement was more about the HKMAO voicing its unease about the situation and was not a formal declaration about terrorist activities.

“That sort of a declaration would be made by departments such as the Ministry of Public Security, as stipulated under the counterterrorism law,” Li said. “[The HKMAO] was instead expressing its concern over the rise of violence in Hong Kong and pointing out that the situation could deteriorate and lead to terrorism.”

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China’s counterterrorism law authorises the police, national security agencies and the judiciary to take measures needed to combat terrorist activities. It also says that the People’s Liberation Army, armed police and the militia should “prevent and handle” terrorist acts under the command of the State Council, China’s cabinet, and the Central Military Commission in accordance with the law.

Pressure is mounting on Hong Kong’s police force to put an end to the unrest. Photo: AFP

Li Lifan, a professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said that even if the protests in Hong Kong escalated further, there were still legal barriers preventing direct intervention by Beijing.

He said that unless Hong Kong sought its help, Beijing would be bound by the law and could not step in.

“It’s also up to the Hong Kong police. If they feel they are no long able to handle the situation, they may ask for Beijing’s help,” he said.

Under the Basic Law and the Garrison Law, the PLA stationed in Hong Kong could assist in “the maintenance of public order” if the Hong Kong government asked the central government for help, and if such a request was approved.

Hong Kong’s anti-government protests are in their tenth week and were sparked by a now-shelved extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to other jurisdictions, including mainland China.

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