China’s defence ministry has said the People’s Liberation Army can legally intervene to help Hong Kong to “maintain social order” if requested to do so by the territory’s government, as the Asian financial centre enters its third month of protests.
The rare warning from China’s military comes as Beijing released its first general white paper on defence in four years in which it placed a new emphasis on safeguarding national political security and social stability.
The demonstrations in Hong Kong started as opposition to an extradition bill that would allow suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial and have since expanded to target the territory’s leader, chief executive Carrie Lam, as well as Beijing.
On Sunday, the demonstrators vandalised the national emblem of China at the building housing Beijing’s representative agency in the territory, known formally as Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government.
“The actions of some radical protesters that challenged the authority of the central government . . . absolutely cannot be tolerated,” defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian said at a press conference on Wednesday to mark the release of the white paper.
While the white paper did not mention Hong Kong, Mr Wu was asked how China’s defence ministry would handle a rise in calls for “Hong Kong independence”.
He said China’s Hong Kong Garrison Law, section 3, article 14 had “clear provisions”, stipulating that the Hong Kong government can “when necessary, ask the central people’s government for assistance in maintaining social order and disaster relief”.
Mr Wu added the defence ministry has been paying “close attention” to the situation in Hong Kong, especially since the Liaison Office incident.
About 6,000 PLA soldiers are based in Hong Kong at 18 barracks around the city.
Dixon Sing, a political-science professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said the defence ministry remarks on PLA intervention in the territory were a message from China to the protesters.
“Should more protesters not only deface other emblems of China in Hong Kong or ratchet up their confrontations against the police, then maybe Beijing would really consider to go down that route [PLA intervention],” Mr Sing said. “This has served as a stern warning for sure.”
Hong Kong pro-democracy legislator Alvin Yeung called on Mrs Lam to clarify if the local government would request assistance from the PLA. “This is something very unusual . . . that the representatives of the Chinese army would say something like that. In the old days they would exercise self-restraint on commenting on anything regarding Hong Kong,” he said.
The warning from Beijing comes as the PLA appears to be sharpening its focus on the domestic security situation in China.
As the armed wing of the Chinese Communist party its chief mission has always been to protect the party’s grip on power.
But for many years after the military crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 1989 that culminated in the crushing of demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, China has avoided highlighting any domestic role for the PLA in areas such as the suppression of dissent or crowd control.
The defence white paper emphasised fighting “Taiwan independence” and suppressing those seeking independence for Tibet or Xinjiang.
It described the crackdown in Xinjiang over the past few years, stressing the role of the paramilitary People’s Armed Police, or PAP. “The PLA, according to the law, supports local governments in maintaining social stability,” it said.
“That is definitely new language,” Adam Ni, China researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, said. Such phrases were a “clear admission that the PLA has an internal role in addition to its external role”.
The concern over internal pressures, unrest in Hong Kong and the failure to make progress towards unification with Taiwan provides the backdrop for generally shriller language on China’s defence, analysts said.
“China’s armed forces have long been responsible for maintaining social stability, notoriously in the tragedy and atrocity of the Tiananmen massacre,” said Elsa Kania, an expert on the Chinese military at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think-tank.
“Although the PAP, which is now under the control of the [Central Military Commission], possesses primary responsibility for social stability, the PLA itself could be called upon to support and augment its police and paramilitary capabilities,” she added.