Hong Kong is already in the eleventh week of social upheaval with continued outbreaks of violence and strikes that have caused a major disruption of public order in recent days.
China’s government has already harshly criticized those taking part in the demonstrations, but many wonder if, in the end, Beijing will lose its temper and decide to take more direct action.
But what legal options does China have to be able to intervene in this special administrative region?
Could we see a military action by Beijing in Hong Kong to suppress these anti-government protests that demand more democracy and greater autonomy over China?
Could China send the army?
The Basic Law – the closest thing to a Constitution in Hong Kong since the United Kingdom returned the territory to China in 1997 – is very clear about this.
Chinese military intervention can only occur at the request of the Hong Kong government and for «maintenance of public order and humanitarian assistance».
Most analysts think it would be almost unthinkable for even a highly «pro-Beijing» Hong Kong government to want that to happen.
They believe that the image of Chinese troops marching through Hong Kong suppressing democratic protests, even though they did not use lethal force, would be disastrous for the reputation of the territory, would risk the destabilization of the economy and cause outrage International.
The People’s Liberation Army (PRS) has about 5,000 troops stationed in Hong Kong since the transfer.
Adam Ni, a researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, told the BBC that the garrison of the Hong Kong People’s Liberation Army – a garrison of the People’s Liberation Army of China, responsible for defence duties in the region – is » relatively low-profile» and much more «a symbolic presence of China’s sovereignty.»
But on July 31, the garrison broke their silence during protests by disclosing a video that included images of soldiers shouting in Cantonese: «All consequences are at your own risk.»
The video saw the soldiers advancing against the protesters. At one scene, police were holding a banner with the words «Stop burden or we will use force,» a warning commonly used by police in Hong Kong in the context of riots.
The video was interpreted as a sign of how China might respond, if necessary.
On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted that the U.S. Intelligence Service had informed him that «the Chinese government is moving troops to the border with Hong Kong.»
Ben Bland, principal investigator at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, told the AFP agency that China appeared to be playing with the threat of an intervention «to try to scare the protesters.»
So far, The main Chinese policy office in Hong Kong stated that it has complete confidence in the police to deal with the unrest.
But spokesman Yang Guang also warned that «those who play with fire will be burned to death,» and protesters should not «confuse the restraint with weakness.»
According to Adam Ni, the political risk – both domestic and external – to China’s government of military intervention is too great and could even worsen the crisis.
«Any military response, unless it was an overwhelming force, would generate more resistance,» he told the BBC.
Can China intervene politically?
One could say that China has already made a number of policy interventions and, in fact, these have been one of the factors that motivated the recent protests.
The Hong Kong Legislative Council, also known as parliament, is biased in favor of Beijing and in 2017, despite huge protests, enacted a law stipulating that candidates for executive leadership would have to have prior approval of a committee sample d’oral in favor of China.
The winner, who must also receive approval from China’s central government, is the one who chooses the ministers.
The person elected as chief executive in 2017 was Carrie Lam. She introduced the now moribund extradition bill that sparked the new protests and made it the focus of the anger of many demonstrators.
Professor Dixon Ming Sing, of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said Beijing has «done a lot to show its power… stubbornly refusing Carrie Lam’s resignation and not allowing him to formally withdraw the bill.»
«If Beijing wants her to quit, could he? Absolutely,» he explained. «But I think Beijing doesn’t want that to happen because it wants to show that it can’t be manipulated by public opinion.»
Naturally, even if Lam left office, his replacement would also have to have Beijing’s support.
And there have been other political measures in Hong Kong in recent years that made it clear that the authorities in the territory are ready to counter feelings against Beijing.
These included the disqualification of opposition mPs who do not properly take the oath of allegiance and a proposed law prohibiting disrespect for the Chinese national anthem, among others.
Could China act against specific activists?
The protests sparked around the extradition bill, whose critics feared it could have been used by China to move political activists to the mainland where they would most likely be convicted.
Carrie Lam has declared the bill extinct, but even without it, several reports from China ignoring similar laws to detain Hong Kong citizens has the protesters concerned.
Gui Minhai, who ran a bookstore in Hong Kong where books critical of the Chinese government were sold, is one of the most prominent cases. He disappeared in Thailand in 2015 and later appeared in China, where he was arrested on charges of a fatal car accident in 2003.
A court in China sentenced him to two years in prison. He was released in 2017 but allegedly arrested again the following year while traveling by train in China. You haven’t heard from him again.
Even if activists were not afraid of arrest, many might be afraid of the repercussions that might exist on their relatives living in mainland China.
Despite fears of direct intervention in Hong Kong, Beijing’s most effective tool for calming the turmoil is likely to prove to be a subtle and powerful economic move.
Hong Kong is a powerful economic generator and has maintained itself since the transfer, partly because of the special status it has enjoyed under the agreements signed with the United Kingdom. But cities in mainland China like Shenzhen and Shanghai have been quickly catching up in this area since 1997.
So if Hong Kong continues to defy Beijing’s authority, that government could continue to divert investment and trade to the mainland, squeezing Hong Kong’s economy and forcing it to be more dependent on Beijing’s goodwill.