The deployment of Chinese military police forces to the city of Shenzhen, just outside of Hong Kong, indicates Chinese President Xi Jinping‘s movement towards crushing the Hong Kong “Umbrella” protests. As I noted on Tuesday, the protesters’ seizure of Hong Kong‘s international airport would appear to have crossed a red line for Beijing.
But what happens if Xi does send in the military? What will follow?
First, the military would probably wait to see if the presence of the People’s Armed Police on Hong Kong streets would be enough to deter the protesters. Beijing‘s hope would be to end the protest movement or at least dramatically reduce its energy by the threat of using force.
But that gambit is unlikely to succeed. The Umbrella Movement has been emboldened by a sense that the authorities lack the resolve and capacity to crush them. It is likely that the protesters will want to challenge China‘s willingness to use force.
If they do, the People’s Armed Police will take escalated action. Recently reorganized under the command of the Central Military Commission in Beijing, the military police have both the authority and support to act decisively. Their deployment to Shenzhen is notable both for its presentation of physical threat and also its indication of Xi’s personal direction. This is not a regionally authorized or directed deployment to simply support the Hong Kong police. In other terms, think of this as the deployment of the 101st Airborne Division rather than a National Guard unit. If the military police does enter Hong Kong, its effort will be integrated with the People’s Liberation Army Southern Theater Command headquarters and China’s MSS civilian intelligence service.
What then? First, the military police will likely enter the airport to restore public control over the situation. In effort to deter the protests from continuing, the military police will likely act with significant use of force. It will then move to secure areas of Hong Kong that have been targeted by the protesters. Any surge in protester violence will then be crushed quickly and relentlessly. Note here that Chinese military doctrine is focused on securing the visible supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party. It is thus feasible that the military might remove protest leaders from Hong Kong to the mainland.
Yet the key point here is that once the military is deployed, Beijing will be fully committed to victory. The Central Military Commission will be keenly aware of international attention to its military action. It will not want to encourage any perception abroad of its hesitation in the moment of action, in fear of emboldening actors such as the United States to more resolute resistance of China‘s foreign policy expansionism.
In short, there will be blood.