On Tuesday, as tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens marched to demand greater democracy and to protect their autonomy from mainland Chinese rule, one of Beijing's top allies in Hong Kong politics made an awfully provocative statement.
"A showdown is getting more and more inevitable by the day, and some degree of violence is imminent," said the Hong Kong politician, Lau Nai-keung, who is closely allied with the Beijing government. "If worst comes to worst, the PLA [People's Liberation Army] will come out of its barracks."
Lau is one of six Hong Kong representatives on a Chinese political body called the Basic Law Committee, which sets policy related to the city's constitution-like Basic Law. While he has nothing approaching the authority to order a Chinese military intervention against Hong Kong protesters, the fact that he so explicitly threatened it is at least a worrying indication of the mood among pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong.
It's not just Lau hinting that the Chinese military could impose order in Hong Kong, where anti-Beijing demonstrations have been growing in recent weeks. Earlier this month, a former high-ranking Chinese official and diplomat named Zhou Nan suggested that the PLA could potentially be called up to put down protests. "[The party] would not allow Hong Kong to turn into a base to subvert China's socialist regime under the guise of democracy," he'd said.
Hong Kong passed from British control to Chinese authority in 1997 under a special arrangement that would allow the prosperous city-sized territory to maintain its capitalism and democracy — a status known as "one country, two systems." Since 1997, though, the Chinese government in Beijing has been increasing its control in Hong Kong, especially in recent years. That has led to periodic and growing unhappiness with the Beijing government.
This most recent round of demonstrations and activism — by some counts the largest anti-Beijing protests since Hong Kong re-joined China in 1997 — began three weeks ago. The Chinese government issued a "white paper" stating that the Communist Party-run Beijing government has "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong and that "the high degree of autonomy of [Hong Kong] is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership." It sounded to many in Hong Kong like affirmation of long-held fears that Beijing planned to dilute or revoke their democratic rights.
Demonstrations and other forms of activism have grown since then, including Tuesday's mass demonstration against Beijing. July 1 is also an annual day of demonstration as it marks the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from British to Chinese rule.
The PLA, which is the formal name of China's enormous military, has about a dozen bases in Hong Kong. Just after the controversial white paper was released, the PLA's large Hong Kong headquarters on the downtown waterfront began flashing the words "People's Liberation Army" in giant neon letters. While neon letters are themselves harmless, they were taken as a subtle assertion of Beijing authority in Hong Kong, and as a bit creepy.
The memory of the Chinese military's bloody 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square is still fresh in Hong Kong, where Tiananmen sympathy protests are held every year. Sensitivity to the possible threat of a Chinese military intervention, and awareness of what that would mean, are not insignificant here.