The Hong Kong Countdown


As thousands of protestors flood downtown Hong Kong in opposition to Beijing’s efforts to control the political future of one of its two “Special Administrative Regions,” there is growing concern about how this situation will be resolved. From the perspective of the demonstrators in Hong Kong, the issue is straightforward. They wish to be able to exercise their own choice in selecting the next chief executive of the territory in 2017. To this end, not only do they demand the right of universal suffrage, i.e., to be able to cast a vote, but they also insist on their right to decide for whom they will cast that vote.

This is an important stipulation because the authorities in Beijing have a different view on the issue. From the perspective of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Hong Kong is, first and foremost, a part of China. While the “Basic Law” governing the reversion of Hong Kong to Chinese governance from the British called for a “one country, two systems” approach, Beijing emphasizes “one country,” rather than “two systems.” This point was reiterated in a white paper Chinese authorities issued on Hong Kong earlier this year, as well as a resolution from the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. China, the white paper noted, is a “unitary state,” and therefore, “China’s central government has comprehensive jurisdiction over all local administrative regions, including the HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region].”

From Beijing’s perspective, Hong Kong did not revert to Chinese rule after 150 years of British control, only to have it then turn against central authority. Moreover, why should they accept the possibility of Hong Kong electing someone at odds with Beijing, when, throughout British rule, there was no local voice at all in the colony’s governance? The granting of suffrage, after all, gives the people of Hong Kong more voice over their own control than is allowed anywhere else in China proper. It probably hasn’t helped that there has been much discussion of Hong Kong somehow influencing China and the Chinese people to demand democratization—part of the dreaded “westernization” and “splittism” that every Chinese leader since at least Deng Xiaoping has warned against.

People’s Armed Police: the Likely Force of Choice?

Few expect the authorities in Beijing to back down. The great fear is that Beijing will choose to use force to suppress the protestors. This possibility becomes increasingly likely if the protestors choose to occupy government buildings or otherwise engage in activities that Beijing would interpret as fundamentally challenging its rule. Even more worrisome would be if the Hong Kong police force ignore orders or otherwise fail to suppress demonstrators.

If the central Chinese authorities were to employ force, the widespread worry is that there would be a repetition of the Tiananmen Square massacre of a quarter century ago. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) maintains a garrison in Hong Kong, which can be authorized to provide “assistance…in the maintenance of public order.” It is unlikely, however, that the PLA itself would be called upon to help put down demonstrations. Not only would the pictures of major military forces, complete with tanks and armored personnel carriers, rolling through downtown Hong Kong devastate the territory’s reputation, but the Chinese government learned from the consequences of the Tiananmen events and allocated more resources towards developing alternative means to quell civil disobedience.

The most important of these alternatives for the present crisis is the People’s Armed Police (PAP). The PAP is part of the Chinese armed forces (wuzhuang liliang), but is distinct from the PLA. The PAP is under the dual control of the Central Military Commission (which runs the Chinese armed forces, which also includes the PLA and the militia) and the State Council (which manages the government, including the various ministries, commissions, etc.).

Where the PLA is responsible for external security, the PAP is responsible for internal security. As the Chinese Defense Ministry’s website explains, “The PAPF [People’s Armed Police Force] is the state’s mainstay and shock force in handling public emergencies.” It goes on to note that the PAP has been employed to crack down on public disturbances and deal with large-scale mass incidents. Throughout PAP’s history, the website boasts, it has “upheld the fundamental interests of the people, maintained the social stability of the places where its forces are stationed, and safeguarded the authority of the nation’s laws.”

Formally established in 1982, much of the initial PAP force was drawn from light infantry divisions that were being demobilized as part of Deng Xiaoping’s million man cut in the PLA. The force gained greater prominence after the Tiananmen Massacre, assuming a growing role in responding to cases of internal unrest, alongside the police forces of the Ministry of Public Security. It is possible that the unwillingness of some PLA units to move against the Tiananmen protestors reinforced doubts about employing the military in an internal security role. As Dennis Blasko has observed,

The PLA leadership appears to have learned the lesson from 1989 that it is not good policy or public relations (either internally or internationally) for heavily armed soldiers to act as police to control unarmed demonstrators or rioters.

The force now fields some 14 divisions as well as a range of smaller units (many of which have specific roles, such as guarding forests and gold mines). Its budget, separate from that of the PLA, has grown steadily as well. Estimates of its size range from 600,000 to 1.5 million personnel.

Past images and reports of PAP forces dealing with “mass incidents,” engaging in crowd dispersal and riot suppression in places such as Xinjiang and Tibet, suggest that PAP units are equipped with riot control gear, including plastic shields, face masks, and vehicle-mounted water cannons. Should they be employed in Hong Kong, then, this would lower, but not eliminate, the likelihood of large numbers of fatalities.

Xi Jinping’s Dilemma

Ideally, of course, Beijing would reconsider its approach to Hong Kong, allow more open and general elections, and allow a truly alternative system to evolve in Hong Kong, even as the territory itself remained firmly part of China.

But such a move would be fraught with risk for Chinese President and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Xi Jinping. A conciliatory stance could be seen as weakness rather than strength, both by Xi’s factional rivals, but also by other elements in China who are agitating for greater freedom. The Tibetans and Uighurs in the Tibet and Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Regions, for example, would likely seize upon such an opening to militate for greater self-rule in these areas, a liberalization which Beijing has made clear it is not prepared to countenance.

It is important to recognize that Xi is still in the midst of his power transition. As the first Chinese leader to have assumed power without the blessing of a revolutionary era leader (such as Mao Zedong or Deng Xiaoping), his position within the CCP is more vulnerable than any of his predecessors. In this regard, the fact that all the members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the true power center in China, except Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, will have to step down at the next Party Congress in 2017 should be seen as a possible mark of weakness. Whatever programs Xi envisions will be interrupted in the 2016-2017 timeframe by the need to seat a new Politburo Standing Committee —which in turn will demand horse-trading politics. Unlike Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao, Xi cannot invoke the judgment of a Deng Xiaoping to support himself. He must, instead, engage in far more politicking.

In this regard, Xi’s extensive anti-corruption drive has undoubtedly alienated many within the CCP (aggravated by the likelihood that many of those charged were probably targeted as much for being political rivals and threats as for actual corruption). This, too, will limit his freedom of maneuver, whether in the remaining three years of this term, or in paving the way for a new Politburo Standing Committee after 2017. Unless he has thoroughly eliminated factional rivals and challengers, he is likely to face a “coalition of the alienated” from within the Party. When Deng Xiaoping faced opposition to his reform efforts, he rallied the provincial leaders from the coast and the south who had benefited under his rule to sustain his program and counterattack his opponents. It is unclear whom Xi might rally in this regard, suggesting again a potentially weakening Chinese leadership.

In this light, Xi is unlikely to be able to compromise much on the issue of Chinese control of Hong Kong, even if he wanted to. His room to maneuver is likely even more constrained by the Hong Kong White Paper and the resolution of the Chinese National People’s Congress Standing Committee, which stake out hardline positions. Should the protestors in Hong Kong take over government buildings or engage in more direct protest actions against the authorities, the pressure on Xi to act will increase.

On the other hand, Hong Kong is one of the world’s major financial centers. Anything that destabilizes the territory or undermines its credibility would jeopardize that position. This, in turn, would seriously affect the Chinese economy, which is already registering signs of slowing down. Capital flight and fears of instability following a crackdown would hurt Hong Kong, but affect China as well. In particular, Hong Kong remains a central source of foreign direct investment into China, providing over half of the amount invested in 2013. This role is likely to grow in importance, as overall foreign direct investment in China has slid to multi-year lows.

Similarly, Hong Kong has been a major source of equity financing, whether in terms of initial public offerings for companies, bonds, or loans. If China truly wishes to challenge the United States for global financial leadership, it will have to rely on a healthy Hong Kong to provide the expertise and trained personnel—and demonstrate that it is willing to let the city function independently, and not simply as a branch of the CCP.

Moreover, as noted earlier, Hong Kong is seen as a test case for Chinese relations with Taiwan. China-Taiwan relations have been fairly quiet since the election of the Kuomintang’s Ma Ying-jeou in 2008, with the two sides focusing on developing economic relations while eliding political differences. But earlier this year, Taiwanese activists staged the “Sunflower” demonstrations, opposing deepened financial ties between the two sides and occupying the Taiwan legislature. This showed the limits of such cooperation and the deep-rooted suspicion of many in Taiwan towards the mainland.

An unsatisfactory resolution of the Hong Kong situation, never mind a bloody one, would cripple cross-straits relations, and do so just before the 2016 elections on the island. As the Kuomintang will not be fielding an incumbent, it will be an open election, not obviously favoring either the Kuomintang or the opposition Democratic Progressive Party. An abject failure of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong would likely benefit the Democratic Progressive Party, which has solidly supported independence, and would likely lead to renewed cross-straits tensions.

Finally, the experience of Tiananmen Square 25 years ago is not one that the Chinese leadership likely wants to repeat. While China’s grip over its Internet and social communications may limit the word of any bloody suppression of Hong Kong spreading domestically, the rest of the world is much more connected than it was in 1989. China’s credibility as a stable partner or investment opportunity would be gravely undermined. Meanwhile, the ongoing Tiananmen sanctions limiting high-tech trade would likely only be tightened in the event Beijing orders a violent crackdown.


Given this conflicting set of pressures and incentives, Xi Jinping is confronted with the first true crisis of his administration. Unlike the Senkakus or the confrontation with Vietnam over the deployment of the deep sea oil rig, this is a situation that arose from below, precipitated by factors outside Beijing’s direct control and manipulation. As such, how Xi Jinping deals with it will be the first glimpse into his crisis management style, and may well provide an indication for how China deals with crises through the rest of this decade.


Dean Cheng is a War on the Rocks contributor. He is the Heritage Foundation’s research fellow on Chinese political and security affairs.


Photo credit: 流璃