The messages from Beijing to protesters in Hong Kong are increasingly ominous. First there was propaganda footage of Chinese soldiers garrisoned in Hong Kong drilling for intense urban fighting that looked more like a civil war than search and rescue or crowd control.
Now footage has emerged of armoured paramilitary vehicles massing across the border. Two months into demonstrations sparked by a controversial extradition law, official rhetoric from Beijing has escalated too. Authorities recently denounced protests as “terrorist acts”, promised an “iron fist” response and, perhaps most alarmingly, described the movement as a “colour revolution”.
China considered the pro-democracy protests which swept across the former Soviet Union during the early years of this century, most prominently Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution, to be existential threats to be tackled at almost any cost. Putting the same label on protesters implies Beijing will stop at little to crush the movement.
The question many are now asking in Hong Kong is whether that might include Chinese troops in the city’s streets, or if Beijing is simply trying to frighten protesters into backing down by publicly flaunting its military muscle.
As protesters and Hong Kong authorities become more entrenched in their positions, and hopes for a compromise dim, the reality may be that China is considering both options, said Prof Steve Tsang, the director of the Soas China Institute.
“I don’t think we should see it in a binary way; it’s not either/or. A huge amount of that [rhetoric and footage] is clearly intimidation, but potentially they could also use them,” he said.
“If they truly see what’s happening in Hong Kong as a colour revolution, they will do whatever it takes [to stop it], which is why I feel we are on much more dangerous ground than a few weeks ago.”
The protest movement took off just days after the 30th anniversary of the slaughter around Tiananmen Square and the shadow of the 1989 bloodshed hangs over all discussions of Hong Kong’s fate.
Beijing is as aware of that grim precedent as protesters on the ground, of the international revulsion, and the political and economic isolation that followed.
Any deployment of the People’s Liberation Army would also be hugely damaging to Hong Kong and its economy, and so Beijing is likely to want to keep that only as a last resort.
“The deployment of PLA troops, however controlled and contained it might seem, will mean the end of Hong Kong and its rapid decline,” said Kenneth Chan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
That would be a big hit for China at a damaging time. The country’s population is ageing, economic growth hit a 30-year low this year, and the national balance sheet is weighed down by huge debt incurred during the boom years.
Instead, Chan said he expected Beijing to explore other ways of crushing protests, through a combination of harsher policing, and political and economic pressure.
They may include “massive arrests by police and escalation of state-sanctioned violence against the activists and protesters; economic sanctions against businesses; censorship and other hidden forms of pressures against universities, civil society groups and the pro-democracy movement”, he said.
Looming over the protests is a deadline of sorts, though. The 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China falls on 1 October. It will be celebrated with a military parade and other activities around the country, and China’s autocratic president, Xi Jinping, is unlikely to want it overshadowed by events in Hong Kong.
Perhaps the biggest question for the future of Hong Kong and its protesters is what he might consider more of a spoiler – crowds still clogging the streets of Hong Kong in a dramatic, democratic denunciation of Xi’s “China dream”, or celebrations held in the bleak wake of a bloody crackdown.