Written by Steven Lee Myers
Warning that protests convulsing Hong Kong were crossing a line, China hinted broadly Wednesday that it was prepared to use military force in the territory if necessary to retain Beijing’s control.
“The behavior of some radical protesters challenges the central government’s authority, touching on the bottom line principle of ‘one country, two systems,’” said the chief spokesman for the Ministry of National Defense, Senior Col. Wu Qian. “That absolutely cannot be tolerated.”
It was both the most explicit warning to date since protests began in the former British colony and a stark reminder of who has ultimate control over Hong Kong’s fate.
Wu made the comments at a briefing in Beijing on a government document outlining China’s defense strategy. Citing protests Sunday outside the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, which protesters splattered with paint and defaced with graffiti, he made clear that the vandalism was straining Beijing’s patience.
Explained: Will China intervene in Hong Kong protests?
China’s state television, which had largely ignored the protests, highlighted the damage at the liaison office, calling it “a humiliation of our country’s dignity.”
Responding to a question, Wu pointedly cited the specific article of a law detailing relations between Hong Kong and the People’s Liberation Army. It allows the military to intervene, when requested by Hong Kong’s leaders, to maintain order or assist in cases of natural disasters.
The People’s Liberation Army has for years maintained a garrison of 6,000 soldiers in several bases around Hong Kong. But China has never before ordered them to intervene in the territory’s affairs, though several hundred did help clear trees and other debris after Typhoon Mangkhut battered the city in 2018.
The new defense strategy unveiled in the document did not mention Hong Kong, but it identified efforts to divide Chinese territory as the country’s most pressing security threat.
The document also refused to rule out the use of force against Taiwan, which China claims as its territory, in the event the self-governing island took any formal steps toward independence.
The document criticized “external forces” that support such independence moves, an oblique but clear reference to the United States, which has long provided support to Taiwan, including a new sale of more than 100 M1A2T Abrams tanks and other weaponry, worth $2.2 billion.
The warnings about what are, to China, core matters of sovereignty underlined growing concern about threats to the central authority of the Communist Party government under President Xi Jinping, whose pledges never to cede any territory are central to his image as the country’s most powerful leader in decades.
The new document on defense strategy — 69 pages in all — offered a detailed window into China’s rising military ambitions under the leadership of Xi. It accused the United States of undermining global stability and reflected China’s uneasy view of an increasingly uncertain world. It also acknowledged shortcomings still hampering the People’s Liberation Army, especially in the areas of artificial intelligence and what it called “informationized warfare.”
“Greater efforts have to be invested in military modernization to meet national security demands,” the strategy said, noting that Chinese military spending was lower as a percentage of gross domestic product than not only the United States and Russia, but also France and Britain. “The PLA still lags far behind the world’s leading militaries.”
Adam Ni, a researcher at Macquarie University in Sydney, said the strategy was noteworthy for emphasizing the military’s loyalty to the Communist Party and the primary mission of providing domestic security. The centrality of the party’s role has been a recurring theme in Xi’s statements before the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October.
The defense strategy “makes it clear that maintaining internal security and social stability is the top priority for China’s armed forces,” Ni wrote in an email. “It is a clear admission that China’s military is oriented internally as much as externally.”
The strategy, with a title that included Xi’s signature allusions to a “new era,” stopped short of explicitly identifying the United States as an adversary, as the Trump administration did with China (and Russia) in its own national security strategy in 2017.
It did accuse the United States of acting unilaterally across the globe by expanding U.S. capabilities in nuclear weaponry, missile defenses, cyberwarfare and outer space. (President Donald Trump last year ordered the creation of the U.S. Space Force as a sixth branch of the U.S. military.)
“The international security system and order are under attack,” Wu said. He went on to criticize those who have described growing tensions in the world as a clash of civilizations akin to the Cold War.
China’s defense strategy — and the comments of the senior officials — made clear that China had its own red lines, particularly dealing with anything perceived to threaten its territorial sovereignty.
It singled out, for example, the deployment in South Korea of the U.S. missile defense system called Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD.
Chinese officials have similarly accused the Americans of supporting the protests convulsing Hong Kong and, more broadly, for supporting Taiwan and its independence-minded president, Tsai Ing-wen, who visited the United States this month.
Although China has long warned Taiwan against steps toward independence, the language in the new strategy was more detailed and voluminous than in previous versions. The document sharply criticized Tsai’s Democratic Progressive Party for “stepping up efforts to sever the connection with the mainland.”
“While it does not look like a change in policy, there is definitely more emphasis on Taiwan,” said Drew Thompson, director of China policy at the Pentagon from 2011 to 2018 and now a research fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. “That underscores the fact that Taiwan remains the main focus of PLA modernization efforts.”
Regarding Hong Kong, the law Wu cited took effect when China resumed control of Hong Kong in 1997 and detailed the activities of the military garrison that was established there soon after. The forces are headquartered in a former British military building in Admiralty, the area where many of the protests have unfolded.
In 2017, on the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, Xi presided over a military parade that was the largest display of Chinese military force, with 3,000 soldiers in formation hailing their commander in chief. For the most part, however, the troops have largely kept a low profile.
Although the law says the People’s Liberation Army will not interfere in “local affairs,” it allows authorities in Hong Kong to call on the military in extreme circumstances.
Beijing has urged the Hong Kong government and the police to swiftly bring to justice those who stormed the territory’s legislative offices July 1 and the liaison office Sunday, but officials have also expressed confidence in local authorities’ abilities to handle the situation.
The use of force — even a symbolic display of military might on the streets outside government landmarks — would be an ominous and unpredictable turn in an already volatile situation.
Analysts said that the warning of military involvement in Hong Kong could inflame, rather than calm, the underlying grievances driving the protests.
“I think it is likely to backfire and further harden public opinion and concerns about the Communist Party of China at a time the ‘one country, two systems’ model is being called into question,” Elsa B. Kania, an expert on Chinese military and defense strategy with the Center for a New America Security in Washington, said in an interview.
The protests have already reverberated in Taiwan, which holds a presidential election in January that is, by some measure, boiling down to a referendum on ties with China.
In Taiwan, the Mainland Affairs Council responded to the new strategy with a statement condemning the warnings. “The Chinese Communist Party’s provocative behavior not only impacts cross-strait peace,” the statement said, “it also seriously violates the peaceful principles of international law and international relations.”
Kania said China’s hard-line message on Taiwan could also be directed at the United States. Detailing China’s view of the threat in a formal strategy was “intended to demonstrate resolve and a sense of the stakes to the United States.”