After more than seven weeks of massive and increasingly violent demonstrations and retaliatory crackdowns in Hong Kong, recent remarks by China’s Defense Ministry suggest Beijing’s tolerance could be at a breaking point.

Referring to the vandalism of the Chinese government’s central liaison office by radical protestors on July 21 as “intolerable” and an affront to the “one country, two systems” principle, Chinese military spokesmen Wu Qian raised the prospect of deploying the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to Hong Kong if requested by the city’s government.

On July 24, when asked at a briefing how China’s Defense Ministry would handle possible future violent agitation by pro-independence protestors, the official replied by saying that “Article 14 of the Garrison Law has clear stipulations,” without elaborating.

The ominous remark, one that hints of a possible armed crackdown, has put many in the city on edge as a new round of mass protests are scheduled for this weekend.

Article 14 of the city’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, states that the Hong Kong government can ask Beijing for assistance to maintain public order and disaster relief from the PLA’s Hong Kong garrison, which houses mainland military personnel who are not otherwise permitted to leave the premises.

Graffiti outside the Liaison Office in Hong Kong on July 21, 2019. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/ Vernon Yuen

“The fact that China’s Defense Ministry is telegraphing its willingness to mobilize the PLA in Hong Kong is definitely a shock to my business community clients,” said David Lesperance, an international tax and immigration consultant who advises wealthy clients on relocation and citizenship issues.

“Clearly, for local and international businesspeople in Hong Kong, this is waving a red flag in front of a bull and a signal that things could get much worse,” he told Asia Times. “Even those who have been most optimistic during the turbulence now have no alternative but to create contingency plans for a military intervention.

“No one wants to see a new Tiananmen [Square massacre] in Sheung Wan,” he added. Lesperance reckons that most in the city do not anticipate that the situation will take such a grim turn, but his clients are taking precautions nonetheless.

Hong Kong officials have since tried to downplay Wu’s remark, with Eric Chan, director of the Chief Executive’s Office, saying there were no plans to seek help from the PLA garrison, whose troops have a large but discreet presence in Hong Kong, a specially-administered Chinese territory which does not have a military force of its own.

There is no guarantee, however, that this would continue to be the case if a major escalation occurred in protestor tactics. The possibility of such a violent turn was raised on July 19 when police seized a large cache of high-powered explosives, petrol bombs and other weapons from a nondescript warehouse during a raid.

Three men in their twenties with alleged links to a pro-independence group have been arrested in connection with the incendiary devices, according to media reports. Hong Kong’s police have also found themselves under strain following an outbreak of mob violence last Sunday that saw white-clad masked men wield iron bars and bamboo sticks against protestors.

White-clad masked men attack protestors at Hong Kong’s Yuen Long Station on July 21, 2019. Photo: Twitter

More than 100 men with alleged links to triad gangs were involved in two separate attacks at a metro station in Yuen Long, in the far northwest of Hong Kong, in which anyone wearing black or other identifiers of the protest movement were indiscriminately attacked. Journalists and passers-by were among at least 45 people hospitalized with injuries.

Police were nowhere to be seen when the marauding gang, some of whom were reportedly seen waving Chinese national flags, attacked the pro-democracy protestors as they returned home from demonstrating, prompting activists and lawmakers to speculate whether law enforcement had intentionally turned a blind eye to the thugs, or even colluded with them.

Commissioner of Police Stephen Lo admitted that law enforcement officers arrived 35 minutes after receiving the first report of attacks at Yuen Long, saying on July 22 that the force’s capacity had been stretched across Hong Kong Island dealing with mass protests that had occurred the day before.

The police chief vehemently denied any connection with the attack and called the accusations “insulting.”

Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam likewise called allegations that her administration colluded with the mob “groundless” and said such claims were designed to “weaken the administration and make it harder for us to run the city.”

Suspicions run rife, however, that the shadowy attackers were hired to inspire fear among demonstrators and to deter others from joining the movement. The slow police response has also brought to light strains on their manpower and raised questions of whether they still have a handle on the situation.

Police officers are seen using pepper spray during a protest in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Vernon Yuen

“The police are now being stretched too thin because they are exhausted physically after all this, handling protests from early June from now July,” Lawrence Ma, a barrister and chairman of the Hong Kong Legal Exchange Foundation, told Asia Times. He is also a member of the Silent Majority for Hong Kong, a pro-Beijing political group.

“The protests have gone too far. The protesters have resorted to violence and damaging properties. [Though] the protests originally started as legal, [they] have turned into an illegal activity,” said Ma, who called vandalism of the national emblem of China at the liaison office an act that touched “the bottom line of Beijing’s tolerance.”

Ma said he had “trust and confidence” in the Hong Kong police to maintain law and order, but claimed the United States and others wanted to see “bloodshed” in Hong Kong “so that they can bring international sanctions upon China” and gain “another bargaining chip in the trade war,” a view that Chinese state media and officials have espoused in recent weeks.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, at a regular press briefing on July 23, said that Beijing “can see that US officials are even behind such incidents,” without offering any evidence, and called on those officials to “tell the world what role did they play and what are their aims.”

“We advise the US to withdraw their black hands,” she said.

A protester is seen waving United States and Hong Kong flags in front of the government Headquarters in Hong Kong, July 21, 2019. Photo: AFP via NurPhoto/Vernon Yuen

Many, however, are unconvinced by allegations of foreign interference steering the massively attended and largely leaderless protests, seeing them instead as a reflection of popular frustration with the city’s government and rising anxiety over Beijing’s perceived tightening grip on the highly autonomous region.

“The protests have always been about the survival of Hong Kong as a separate political system from mainland China. They are about the future of the territory and create existential fears,” said Stephan Ortmann, an assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong. “The government, however, has not really recognized this problem publicly.”

What started as a protest movement against a now-suspended bill that would have allowed for extraditions to mainland China has since morphed into a wider and more radical movement that includes demands for greater democracy, the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, and even opposition to mainland tourists visiting Hong Kong.

“Some protesters have escalated the protests and vandalized property with political slogans as well as provoked the police because the government has not made any substantial change,” Ortmann told Asia Times.

“This is a risky strategy as it could lead to Chinese intervention, although that is also risky as it could destroy Hong Kong’s uniqueness and lead to the territory’s economic collapse.”