The Chinese State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office has deftly sought to soft-pedal the talk of swinging open the gates of the Chinese military barracks in Hong Kong, despite an anti-Hong Kong commotion in mainland China which sees leftists calling for the deployment of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops to rein in the unruly city.

The office’s spokesperson told reporters who asked about any imminent PLA operations targeting Hong Kong that they should revisit related clauses in the city’s constitutional document, the Basic Law, at a closely watched press conference on Monday in Beijing.

Stipulations in the law authorize the Hong Kong government to ask for help from the military in disaster-relief situations and maintaining order when it is necessary, but ban the PLA from meddling in Hong Kong affairs.

The office has rolled back from a more hawkish admission of “grave concerns” by a Defense Ministry spokesman last week, who said the 6,000 PLA troops already stationed in Hong Kong, like their comrades-in-arms elsewhere, would always be in a state of readiness.

The backdrop is the rising doubts among cadres and ordinary Chinese as they impugn the ability and resolve of Hong Kong’s own constables and sergeants in policing the city and rounding up demonstrators.

China’s national emblem at the main entrance of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong is defaced by protesters during a rally in July. Photo: Facebook
Chinese President Xi Jinping, also the chief commander of the PLA, inspects troops during a military parade  in Hong Kong on the 20th anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain in July 2017. Photo: Xinhua

It has also been revealed that, at the start of Hong Kong’s mass anti-China extradition bill protests in early June, chief commander of the PLA’s Hong Kong garrison, Lieutenant General Chen Daoxiang, invited David Helvey, the US’s principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, to his office at the Central Barracks, next door to Hong Kong’s government headquarters.

Chen gave Helvey his personal assurance that the force would continue to keep its nose out of the running of the former British colony, which was promised a “high degree of autonomy” by Beijing in a joint declaration signed with the United Kingdom.

There is a plan 

But there has long existed a coordination and operation mechanism between the Hong Kong police and the PLA garrison, which reportedly came into existence after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when the Chinese military was assigned a new anti-terrorism and anti-riot role.

Bruce Lui, a veteran reporter in Hong Kong who now teaches journalism at the city’s Baptist University, noted in his column in the Ming Pao newspaper that under such an arrangement, the Hong Kong police would be the PLA’s “guide,” leading the way into all corners of the city on missions to quell unrest.

While the Hong Kong police and the Security Bureau have both declined to comment on the mechanism or its existence, the Southern Daily, the party mouthpiece of neighboring Guangdong province, divulged details about a seven-step procedure of the PLA mobilization and chain of command in a report in October 2001:

1) the Security Bureau briefs the chief executive (CE) – Hong Kong’s top leader – on the need to request a PLA deployment,

2) the CE submits a formal request to the central government in Beijing,

3. the Security Bureau notifies the PLA garrison in Hong Kong,

4) the central government approves the request and notifies the CE and the Central Military Commission, the PLA’s command and control body,

5) the Central Military Commission notifies its Joint Staff Department, the Southern Theater Command and the PLA garrison in the city for mobilization,

6) the Hong Kong Police Force sets up a command center at its headquarters compound and appoints an assistant police chief as the commander, and

7) the commander briefs the PLA garrison, and the latter will have carte blanche to conduct its operations.

The headquarters of the PLA’s Hong Kong garrison, taken over from the British forces, is in the city’s Admiralty area, next door to the government headquarters and sleek office towers. Photo: Xinhua
Some PLA soldiers watch from the HQ building as protesters and police clashed nearby. Photo: Facebook

Lui claimed that an assistant police commissioner corroborated the Southern Daily’s report in an off-the-record chat with him. He further added that the Hong Kong police’s current No 2 official, Chris Tang, who is in charge of all operations across all police regions, would be the main point person coordinating the police’s assistance to the PLA in the event of such a deployment.

The entire process may take less than 48 hours to finish, and once the PLA is out, the Hong Kong police will take a back seat following the military takeover. There will be no joint operations between the two.

That said, the rationale for having a Hong Kong police top gun to be the nominal commander is to advise the PLA garrison, whose soldiers may not be familiar with Hong Kong’s sinuous streets, its densely built-up areas and running battles in an urban setting, as they are strictly confined to their own camps most of the time.

Lui also estimated that about 8,000 troops could be ready for missions after drawing reinforcements from the PLA’s barracks in Shenzhen. The force’s elite 74th Army Group, based in Guangdong’s Huizhou, can field more solders if needed. The group just wrapped up a high-profile anti-riot drill, after Hong Kong protesters defaced the Chinese coat of arms at Beijing’s liaison office in the city.

PLA soldiers perform during a barracks open day at a naval base in Kowloon, against the skyline of Hong Kong island. Photo: Reuters

Bloomberg also reported on Wednesday morning that the White House had been monitoring what it called a “congregation of Chinese forces on the border with Hong Kong.”

A professor at Peking University who declined to be named told Asia Times, however, that Beijing was fully aware that letting the troops out would mean “a point of no return,” and that top party cadres would rather let Lam and the Hong Kong police clean up the mess, as President Xi Jinping already has too many things to worry about, including trade talks and a faltering economy.

Yet he agreed that there must be a “contingency plan” in place for any eventuality. He also doubts the effectiveness of any such coordination between the Hong Kong police and the PLA, as there could never be any “drill” or “rehearsal” beforehand for them to hone each other’s preparedness.

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