◎ The CCP seems to have made a “tactical adjustment” from outright coercion to suppression by terror to “stabilize” the situation in Hong Kong.
A week after raising the possibility of military intervention in Hong Kong, Beijing subtly downplayed the prospect of mobilizing the People’s Liberation Army and promoted a classic Communist Party tactic of suppressing the masses in official remarks.
Based on our long-term research into the Chinese Communist Party, we believe that it has made the “tactical adjustment” from outright coercion to suppression by terror to “stabilize” the situation in Hong Kong without resorting to direct intervention. The CCP’s latest gambit, however, would likely backfire when it loses the hearts and minds of the Hong Kong police and security forces.
On Aug. 6, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council held its second press conference on the Hong Kong situation. HKMAO spokesman Yang Guang reiterated Beijing’s support for the Hong Kong government’s handling of the protests, offered “advice” on how to proceed with stopping the violence and chaos in the city, and gave a fuller explanation of the PLA’s role in the CCP regime:
‘Those who play with fire will perish by it’
Yang Guang opened the press conference by stressing the HKMAO’s support for Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam and her government, as well as the Hong Kong police force. He blamed the “violence and chaos” in the city on a “very small group of unscrupulous and violent criminals and the dirty forces behind them,” and warned that “those who play with fire will perish by it.”
Yang accused “anti-China forces” of being “behind-the-scenes masterminds” who had “openly and brazenly emboldened” the protesters to “mess up Hong Kong.” The “masterminds” have “called black white and spared no efforts in playing up fallacies and absurdities such as the so-called ‘civil disobedience’ and even the fallacious view that ‘only violence can solve problems,’” he said. Yang also blamed Western politicians for their “irresponsible remarks” and said that foreign interference in Hong Kong affairs “should not be allowed.”
Yang Guang claimed that the protests have “seriously affected Hong Kong’s economy and people’s livelihoods” and noted that the city’s second-quarter GDP had increased by only 0.6 percent from a year ago.
Analysis: HKMAO spokesman Yang Guang’s remarks on the protest are both classic CCP disinformation and “political correctness” in action.
First, some protesters in Hong Kong only started resorting to violence after the pro-Beijing Hong Kong government made a move to speed up the passing of a controversial extradition bill after the Hong Kong people carried out two mass demonstrations where millions participated. In other words, the violence and chaos were born out of protester desperation in the face of a Hong Kong government that is perceived to be doing the bidding of the PRC government. The violence and chaos were also provoked by the brutality of the Hong Kong police and attacks on protesters by triad thugs. It is thus disingenuous of Yang Guang to blame “behind-the-scenes masterminds” and “foreign interference” for the radicalization of the Hong Kong protest movement when the CCP backing the Hong Kong government and the police while not condemning the triad attacks on protesters is the main reason for the escalation of violence and chaos in the city.
Second, the protests in Hong Kong would have unlikely impacted the city’s second-quarter GDP results in a major way. For one, the bulk of protests in June were carried out over the weekends and would not have disrupted regular working operations. Instead, Hong Kong’s poor economic performance is “self-inflicted” by the CCP’s efforts to back violence against the protesters and not give in to their demands. Indeed, the CCP hinting at the possibility of military intervention and rumors that martial law would be imposed in the city during the week of June 29 are factors that almost certainly triggered capital flight from Hong Kong and the mainland and forced the Chinese authorities to let the renminbi fall below the 7 to the dollar mark. The devaluation of the RMB and America designating China as a currency manipulator led to sharp declines in the Hong Kong and mainland stock exchanges. Again, we see that it is the CCP, and not the protesters, who has done more harm to Hong Kong’s economy with its threats and hardline stance. Had the CCP not backed the extradition bill, the Hong Kong government would unlikely go ahead with it and there would not be protests today in Hong Kong.
Finally, it is characteristic of the CCP to never admit to its mistakes and failings, but to instead blame external forces. The CCP fears that making concessions, no matter how small, may embolden demonstrators to ask for more and eventually threaten regime stability.
‘Stop the violence and restore order’
In talking about what Hong Kong should do next, HKMAO spokesman Yang Guang said, “In a sentence, ‘stop the violence and restore order!’” He called on the people in Hong Kong to “stand firm and guard your beautiful homeland” given the “very severe state of affairs” in the city, stressing that “now is the crucial moment.”
“I would like to warn all of the criminals: don’t ever misjudge the situation and mistake our restraint for weakness,” Yang said.
Analysis: Yang Guang is calling on a very specific group of Hong Kong people to “stand firm and guard your beautiful homeland,” namely, the triads and clan associations who are pro-Beijing. Yang’s “encouragement,” coupled with his expressing support for the Hong Kong government and police force, indicates that the CCP is going to rely on the classic incitement tactic of “pitting the masses against the masses” (群眾鬥群眾) to resolve the Hong Kong protest.
There are signs that CCP incitement tactics are already being implemented in Hong Kong. In our analysis of the Hong Kong legislature building break-in on July 1, we pointed out several questionable developments which lead us to believe that CCP incitement cannot be ruled out. We also noted the CCP connection in the Yuen Long triad attacks on July 21. On Aug. 5, Hong Kong media captured footage of a Hong Kong police telling his colleagues, “comrades, over there” (“同志們, 那邊”) in Mandarin instead of Cantonese, the Chinese dialect spoken in Hong Kong. This corroborates our July 31 analysis where we noted that the CCP could sway the Hong Kong police force and deploy undercover People’s Army Police forces to quell the protests in the city.
Based on our observation, the CCP seems to be planning to mobilize local and mainland triads, as well as pro-CCP groups and associations, to attack protesters in the name of “stopping violence and restoring order” in the weekend of Aug. 11. The goal of attacking protesters is almost certainly to scare them into calling off future demonstrations:
1. Hong Kong social media recently circulated an Aug. 1 notice by the management office of “Hong Kong Crown Building,” mixed commercial-residential block in Hong Kong’s North Point district. According to the notice, the police had notified the management office that there would be “chaos” in the North Point district on Aug. 11 and warned residents not to go out in the streets.
2. According to Hong Kong media reports, dozens of triad members from a Fujian association in the North Point district attacked protesters with knives and badly injured a handful of them. The protesters retreated, but came back in numbers to tussle with the gangsters. At least two of the Fujian thugs were injured and apprehended by the protesters in the skirmish. When the police arrive on scene, they let the triad members leave and dispersed the protesters. According to news reports, the injured gangsters were revealed to be from the mainland when they were taken to the hospital for treatment. Previously, Hong Kong social media posts noted that triad members from Tsuen Wan, Tuen Mun, and Yuen Long districts of Hong Kong had received HK$3,000 for beating up and slashing protesters; it is not stated where the source of money was from.
3. On Aug. 7, Hong Kong social media circulated information that a Fujian association was recruiting villagers to go to Hong Kong to “carry out retaliation” work in the North Point district. This development sparked alarm among North Point residents.
4. On Aug. 7, HKMAO head Zhang Xiaoming and Hong Kong Liaison Office director Wang Zhimin spoke at a meeting on the Hong Kong situation held in neighboring Shenzhen. The meeting was attended by representatives of the National People’s Congress of the Hong Kong Autonomous Region, national and provincial Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference representatives and Standing Committee members, leaders of so-called “love China, love Hong Kong” (爱国爱港) associations, and the heads of PRC state-owned enterprises in Hong Kong.
In his official remarks, Zhang stressed that Party Central supported Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, her government, and the Hong Kong police for “not compromising in the face of opposition.” He also appealed to the “patriots and those who love Hong Kong to unite and fight resolutely,” and noted that “vast numbers of Hong Kong people are vigorously taking action to say no to violence.” Zhang also expressed hope that the “patriots and those who love Hong Kong should play a vital role in maintaining Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability.”
Wang Zhimin said that “the struggle” in Hong Kong is a “life-and-death battle,” a “defense battle,” and one that “concerns its fate and future.” He added that the situation is one where “there is no room to retreat,” and encouraged those at the meeting to “break the dreadful silence in an atmosphere where no one dares speak out.”
The remarks by Wang and Zhang are aimed at rallying pro-CCP elements to confront protesters. Concurrently, their remarks hint at a split in the pro-Beijing Hong Kong establishment and the lack of enthusiasm by some in the pro-Beijing camp to get behind Party Central.
No PLA intervention—for now
When asked by a reporter as to whether the central government will send the PLA or mainland security forces into Hong Kong to “maintain stability,” HKMAO spokesman Yang Guang replied that:
- The PLA is “a strong force that defends every inch of its sacred territory”;
- The PLA is “a force of power but also a civilized power”;
- The PLA obeys the Party’s commands and acts in accordance with the law;
- The Hong Kong government and police, with the “strong support of the central government and the Chinese people,” are “fully capable of punishing those criminal activities and restoring public order and stability”;
- The central government will not allow “turbulence” beyond the Hong Kong government’s control to threaten national security or unity.
Analysis: In comparing Yang Guang’s remarks on Aug. 6 with his prior remarks on July 29, as well as the remarks of defense ministry spokesman Wu Qian (July 24) and PLA Garrison commander Chen Daoxiang (July 31), it is clear that Beijing is trying to downplay the threat of possible military intervention.
The earlier PRC remarks on military intervention in Hong Kong deliberately focused on the possibility and legal basis for mobilizing the PLA and can be considered to be a veiled threat. In contrast, Yang’s Aug. 6 remarks puts the emphasize on Beijing’s restraint by focusing on the notion that the PLA is constrained by Party Central and PRC laws (“a force of power but also a civilized power”) while stressing that the Hong Kong government and police are “fully capable” of handling affairs in Hong Kong. We believe that the PRC is toning down on the military intervention threat to calm businesses and investors in the mainland and Hong Kong and avoid another situation where it is forced to devalue the RMB and provoke a tough response from the United States.
In sum, the PRC presently seems to believe that the Hong Kong government and pro-Beijing forces are sufficient to suppress the protesters, and that it is not yet necessary to send out the troops. Not sending out the troops, however, does not mean that the CCP will not resort to violence and bloodshed by other means to quell the protests.
1. The CCP is prepared to use violence and bloodshed to suppress the Hong Kong protests, but seems to be less keen on using its military to carry out the suppression or impose martial law. Hence, the CCP will likely continue to rely on incitement tactics and hope that the Hong Kong police/triad/uncover PRC security force “white terror” would be enough to frighten the protesters into ending the demonstrations. The CCP is likely also hoping that the Hong Kong protests would naturally peter out when the young protesters are due back in school in September. Further, the CCP will be looking to resolve the Hong Kong issue before the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1.
2. There are two significant drawbacks to the CCP’s incitement tactics.
First, incitement tactics take time to bear fruit, and the CCP does not have the luxury of time to resolve the Hong Kong situation. The longer the protests continue in Hong Kong, the greater the negative impact it will have on the Hong Kong economy, and by extension, the mainland economy. The RMB falling below the 7 mark on Aug. 5 and the financial, economic, and geopolitical fallout of the currency devaluation is the first major warning to the CCP that affairs in Hong Kong, including the international perception of how the CCP plans to handle the Hong Kong situation, can severely impact the PRC. Never-ending protests and violence in Hong Kong will also attract more intense international scrutiny and condemnation of the PRC government.
Second, the CCP has already lost the hearts and minds of many people in Hong Kong, and next risks losing the hearts and minds of the security forces the longer the protests drag on. Many Hong Kong police officers are born and raised in Hong Kong, and the bulk of them cannot possibly be happy with suppressing their fellows every week while facing criticism for their brutal behavior towards protesters when they go off-duty. The mental, emotional, and physical fatigue would eventually take its toll and compel many in the police force to decide whether they wish to keep their job and indirectly defend Beijing or step down and stand in solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters in confronting Beijing. We believe that there could be a phenomenon where Hong Kong police officers start quitting the force or carry out their duties passively. And if there are indeed undercover mainland security forces currently embedded in the Hong Kong police, they could be exposed when there is a prominent fracture in the police ranks.
3. Hong Kong is quickly turning into a real dilemma for the CCP. On the one hand, Party orthodoxy and “political correctness” prevent Beijing from retreating and conceding to protester demands. On the other hand, the CCP cannot mobilize the military without sacrificing Hong Kong, while agitation and incitement tactics have no guarantee of success. Meanwhile, the CCP’s extralegal tactics in Hong Kong would convince the people of Hong Kong that they made the correct decision in protesting the proposed extradition bill, and the protest movement would gain greater legitimacy among the masses. The longer the protests continue, the CCP becomes more at risk of being found out.