The Hong Kong government had described some of the early protests in Hong Kong as a “riots.” On Aug. 7, Zhang Xiaoming, director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council, said the protests have taken on “color revolution characteristics,” warning that “the central government will not sit back and do nothing.”
Wang Zhimin, head of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, added that the crisis has evolved into a “battle of life and death.” An anti-riot drill across the border in Shenzhen and earlier troop drills by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison in Hong Kong suggest that Beijing has a close eye on Hong Kong.
What do these escalations in rhetoric mean, exactly? Here’s what you need to know.
The “Color Revolution” label is complicated
Hong Kong’s massive protests began in May, and called for the government to formally withdraw an extradition bill that would have required Hong Kong authorities to turn over accused offenders to mainland criminal justice.
Protesters now want an independent investigation into police abuses, and call on the Hong Kong government to drop riot charges and reopen the debate over democratic reform — which the government set aside in 2015.
But unlike color revolutions in Ukraine, Georgia and elsewhere, people in Hong Kong are not fighting for some abstract ideals that they have never experienced. Instead, they are defending the freedoms and autonomy that they have grown up with. If they also aspire to democracy, that is because it had been guaranteed to them.
Protesters refuse to give up on earlier promises
The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which set the stage for Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, promised the city a high degree of autonomy and a system based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law. The 1991 Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, provides for the “ultimate aim” of “universal suffrage” in the selection of the chief executive and the Legislative Council.
However, Beijing undermined this vision from the start by delaying democratic reform and assigning itself the ultimate power to interpret the Basic Law, overriding the local courts, which were supposed to be “independent” and “final.” Hong Kong’s Legislative Council is structured to keep directly elected legislators in perpetual minority so that the chief executive is guaranteed enough votes to push through any bills.
Masked protesters themselves and academics have explained that “reclaiming Hong Kong” means a return to the former Hong Kong with the rule of law, an impartial police force, an independent judiciary and an unfettered free press. “Revolution,” they argue, is not a new term — pointing to the 2014 “Umbrella Revolution.” The rallying cry then was “I want genuine universal suffrage.”
Beijing may have several ways to intervene
The shift in rhetoric suggests Beijing sees the ongoing protests as an existential threat. The Basic Law clearly states that PLA troops stationed in Hong Kong are for defense only and “shall not interfere in local affairs.” When reporters asked about PLA deployment, Beijing’s spokesperson Yang Guang replied on July 28 that “The Basic Law has clear statements on that question, and I have nothing to add.”
But Article 14 also states the Hong Kong government may “ask for assistance from the garrison in the maintenance of public order and in disaster relief.” With a chief executive chosen by a 1,200-person selection committee that generally defers to Beijing, the central government in China can easily direct the local government to request PLA assistance.
And Article 18 of the Basic Law provides a bypass option. During war or “by reason of turmoil within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region which endangers national unity or security and is beyond the control of the Region,” the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress can declare an emergency and “apply the relevant national laws.”
Labeling the protest a “color revolution” gives Beijing a route to stage a military intervention.
As we detail in our Foreign Affairs article, Beijing has other means before resorting to this “nuclear option.” First and foremost, officials have expressed full support for the Hong Kong police to “punish violent and unlawful acts” by “radical” protesters.
Under the Public Order Ordinance, demonstrations are “unlawful” if the police refuse to issue a “no-objection notice” — essentially, a permit. Such refusals were rare for two decades since the 1997 handover, but the police have repeatedly used this card in recent weeks, and have arrested hundreds of suspected protesters. Police appear to be charging many of those arrested with the vaguely defined crime of rioting, which could carry a maximum sentence of 10 years.
Police officers have become less restrained
Police officers in recent weeks have routinely fired tear gas, pepper spray, beanbags and sponge grenades. Police have also fired rubber bullets at head level. They have fired tear gas at and arrested not just black-clad protesters, but also medical volunteers, social workers, elected councilors, reporters and passersby.
They have been accused of colluding with gangsters who indiscriminately beat up locals with wooden sticks and metal rods at the suburban Yuen Long train station on July 21. A week later, the police indiscriminately charged with batons and tear gas at crowds in the same station, leading to headlines likening the police to thugs.
To date, the gangsters who attacked train passengers and protesters alike have not been charged; only two dozens have been investigated and released on bail. This biased enforcement of the law and tolerance of lawless attacks on protesters has turned a wide sector of traditionally conservative Hong Kong residents against the police. Various professional groups — including financial sector workers, accountants, architects, airport staff, and civil servants — have staged their own rallies.
A recent poll shows that 79 percent of the Hong Kong public want an independent investigation into police abuses. Addressing this one demand could readily de-escalate the tensions. But Beijing officials have made it clear that this would not happen before they have put an end to the “color revolution.”
All of these developments suggest Hong Kong’s protests have become entrenched. So far, the deafness of authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing and the indiscriminate nature of repression have only radicalized protesters and widened their circle of support.
Michael C. Davis is senior research scholar at the Weatherhead East Asia Institute at Columbia University and global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC.
Victoria Tin-bor Hui, associate professor in political science at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of “Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement: The Protests and Beyond.”