China’s state-run Global Times newspaper reported on Tuesday that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted “emergency response exercises” last week, revealing that the military is preparing for an emergency situation near the autonomous city the morning after protesters destroyed the Beijing-controlled legislature.
Hong Kong is governed under a policy known as “one country, two systems,” in which Beijing rules the city but allows it to operate as a capitalist economy to generate revenue. City residents have organized massive protests in the past month – at their peak attracting 2 million of the city’s 7 million people – against a proposed law that would allow Hong Kong police to extradite individuals regardless of nationality to China if the Communist Party accuses them of violating Chinese law. Fearing arrests for publicly rejecting communism, the protesters have demanded the full rescinding of the bill.
Late Monday, protesters destroyed the Legislative Council (LegCo) headquarters to prevent lawmakers from physically meeting and passing the bill. That attack, which largely did not attract violence against individuals, followed an announcement last week by chief executive Carrie Lam that the legislature would table the extradition bill, which keeps it alive to return at any moment but prevent an immediate vote.
The Global Times described the military exercises last week as being intended to test “the troops’ combat capabilities in terms of emergency response and joint operations,” according to the PLA. The drills tested ground, sea, and air responses to an emergency in the city. The Times went out of its way to describe the PLA stationed in Hong Kong as being “not a formality,” meaning the Chinese Communist Party would not hesitate in using troops if it felt necessary to keep the peace.
“The PLA Hong Kong Garrison is responsible for preparing against and resisting aggression, safeguarding the security of Hong Kong, carrying out defense duties, administering military facilities and handling foreign-related military affairs,” the newspaper noted.
The Global Times also made a note of the protests on Monday in the article about the military’s emergency response, though it did not explicitly call the drills a response to the protests. Instead, it warned the international community not to condemn China in the event that it took action to end pro-democracy rallies.
The PLA had planned a three-day “open house” this weekend in anticipation of the 22nd anniversary of the United Kingdom handing administration of Hong Kong to China. The Defense Ministry called the anniversary “a great opportunity to promote the Hong Kong people’s patriotic education and enhance recognition of their national identity” in a press release on the event.
The latter is of particular importance to Beijing because polls show a precipitous drop in the number of Hong Kong residents who identify as Chinese. A University of Hong Kong survey conducted last month found that only 11 percent of those living in Hong Kong identified as Chinese. A total of 71 percent said they were not “proud” of legally being Chinese citizens; that number rose to 90 percent in the 18-29 age range.
The PLA opened its Hong Kong garrison to the public for three days to display the strength of the military and, perhaps, intimidate locals away from the protests that had come to define June in the city.
“This event is being held to introduce the modernization of China and its military, promote patriotism and military security education to a Hong Kong people, particularly for the city’s youth,” Tian Feilong, a China-friendly professor, is quoted in the Ministry of Defense press release as saying. Tian added that the event was meant to teach Hong Kongers that “a better Hong Kong can only be achieved with a strong and prosperous motherland.”
“Opposition activists also convened to stage a demonstration, an annual routine that residents have since grown accustomed,” the Global Times lamented.
The Chinese Communist Party has one of the world’s deadliest track records in responding to anti-government protests. In early June, Hong Kong joined the rest of the world (excluding China) in observing the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. In 1989, the Chinese military killed an unknown number of peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Beijing, sometimes estimated to be as many as 10,000. Chinese tanks rolled over protesters, crushing them alive, soldiers shot protesters indiscriminately and, reportedly, killed injured protesters in hospitals. Thousands disappeared, their families unable to know their fate.
The Chinese military defended the Tiananmen Square massacre this year, a rare move as Beijing typically opts to censor the event from the internet and ban any mention of it.
“That incident was a political turbulence and the central government took measures to stop the turbulence which is a correct policy,” General Wei Fenghe, the Chinese defense minister, said last month. “The 30 years have proven that China has undergone major changes China has enjoyed stability and development.”
The Global Times called the massacre “a political success.”
Xi Jinping’s regime appeared to be laying the groundwork for a similar response to the Hong Kong protests if necessary. In addition to moving the military into the port city, Chinese media are branding Monday’s raid of the Hong Kong LegCo “an open and symbolic attack” against Chinese law.
“It is a disgrace that such a developed society could carry out this kind of reckless and savage violence that has signaled an ominous alert for the city’s future,” the Global Times declared, warning that a “zero-tolerance policy” was necessary to prevent further opposition to the communists.
The protesters do not appear at press time to have attacked or hurt any police officers, though in the skirmishes 15 officers were reportedly injured. In contrast, 45 protesters were hurt as police unleashed tear gas on the crowds shattering the glass exterior of LegCo’s headquarters. The protesters smashed through the legislative building, spray-painting anti-communist slogans on the legislature’s walls and vandalizing symbols of the Chinese government. Hong Kong officials estimated it would take at least two weeks for them to repair the damage, halting the lawmaking process for at least that long.