Chinese troops can be deployed to restore order in Hong Kong, says Beijing in warning to protesters

People's Liberation Army soldiers at an open day at Stonecutters Island naval base in Hong Kong on June 30, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING - The People's Liberation Army (PLA) said on Wednesday (Jul 24) that its forces stationed in Hong Kong can be deployed to maintain public order in the city - a move branded by analysts as a clear warning to protesters who are seen by Beijing as becoming increasingly provocative.

Such a deployment of troops would have to come at the request of the Hong Kong government, according to Hong Kong's Garrison Law, which PLA spokesman Wu Qian referenced, noting that article 14 has "clear stipulations". He did not elaborate further.

"We are closely following the developments in Hong Kong, especially the violent attack against the central government liaison office by radicals on July 21," Colonel Wu said at a briefing to introduce China's new defence white paper.

"Some behaviour of the radical protesters is challenging the authority of the central government and the bottom line of one country, two systems, and that is absolutely intolerable. The Pearl of the Orient is not to be defiled."

Article 14 states that the city's government can ask the central government for assistance from the PLA's Hong Kong garrison to maintain public order and for disaster relief.

Should Beijing approve, the garrison would send the troops to carry out the specified tasks. They would then return to their station.

The troops would be under the command of the garrison's highest commander, or an officer authorised by the commander with arrangements made by the Hong Kong government.

Wednesday's comments from China's defence ministry come amid what Beijing views as increasingly radical actions from protesters in Hong Kong, who are opposing an extradition Bill that could allow criminal suspects to be sent to the mainland.

The territory has been convulsed by protests over the Bill for seven consecutive weeks.

Protesters have clashed with police and stormed Hong Kong's parliament, the Legislative Council (LegCo).

But it is their latest act of protest that has truly rattled Beijing and - according to one analyst who wanted to remain anonymous - come "close to their bottom line".

On Sunday, demonstrators besieged and vandalised Beijing's Liaison Office, defacing the national emblem.

SPH Brightcove Video
Hong Kong police fired tear gas to disperse protesters in chaotic scenes late on Sunday as anger over an extradition bill morphs into a fresh front against what many see as a broader erosion of freedoms by the city's political masters in Beijing.

It sparked a chorus of condemnation from the mainland, with state media, the head of the Liaison Office, and the Chinese foreign ministry, denouncing the violence.

Beijing has also allowed images of the defaced national emblem to circulate on highly regulated Chinese social media, further stoking public anger.

"On some degree this has become a violent movement - the attacks on the Liaison Office and LegCo, most countries will not be able to allow or accept this. (The comments from the defence ministry) are a warning to Hong Kong's protesters," said Nanjing University's Professor Zhu Feng, an expert on the Chinese military.

Watching protesters vandalising the Liaison Office, would have disturbed the Chinese leaders and reminded them of how LegCo was stormed, said analysts, adding that it would be "disastrous" if something similar happened to the Liaison Office.

While it is keeping the military option on the table, Beijing is taking "a very cautious and disciplined approach to Hong Kong, and depending on its police force to keep protests under control for now", said Professor Lau Siu Kai, the vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies.

Beijing is aware that sending in military forces unnecessarily "can only intensify popular grievance", said Mr James Char, an expert on the Chinese military at Nanyang Technological University.

"The situation in Hong Kong has grown worse over the past few weeks, but has not spun out of control. As long as the Hong Kong police force is able to maintain law and order, the PLA will not be activated in Hong Kong anytime soon."

On Wednesday, the defence ministry also had a stern warning for those seeking independence for Taiwan, calling it a "dead end".

"If anyone dares to try to separate Taiwan from China, the Chinese army will certainly not hesitate to fight and resolutely defend the sovereign unity and territorial integrity of the country," said Colonel Wu.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.