With the Hong Kong government paralyzed by mass protests, the chances of armed intervention from Beijing, once unthinkable, are rising by the day.
Far from hiding its intent, Beijing has been parading it in full view over the past week. The protesters, initially reviled as mobs, have been rebranded by Chinese officials as criminals and terrorists. The state media has broadcast ominous footage of its anti-riot police, who fall under the command of the People’s Liberation Army, marshaled on the Hong Kong border in Shenzhen.
To be sure, the threats against the protesters are designed to ensure that Beijing never has to carry them through. By displaying their fury and firepower, Chinese leaders are hoping the protesters will retreat.
But Beijing’s long-term management of Hong Kong and the internal logic of its own politics mean that President Xi Jinping and the ruling Communist Party have few offramps to dial down the conflict, even if they might well wish to.
Beijing doesn’t have to be reminded about the disastrous road it is heading down. The fallout from its use of military force in 1989 to clear demonstrators out of central Beijing and other cities has reverberated for decades in elite politics and the military in China, as well as overseas, where the crackdown lives on as a symbol of repressive Communist Party rule.
China has learned a lot since then about how to better manage protests within its own borders. A highly trained paramilitary force, the People’s Armed Police, now takes the lead in dealing with local disturbances. With the P.A.P.’s help, the authorities’ priority is to unwind any demonstrations with minimal violence and disperse protesters before unrest spreads.
Most important, propaganda department directives tightly manage the reporting of protests in the domestic Chinese media, to ensure that grievances aired in one locality don’t spread nationally and gain a momentum of their own.
There is no containing the protests in Hong Kong, however. The former British colony has a vigorous media, in both Chinese and English, scores of international journalists, a boisterous civil society, an unimpeded internet — for the moment at least — and tens of thousands of citizen journalists recording events on their mobile phones.
Hong Kong’s insurrection won’t be quelled with the imprisonment of a few students. One way or another, it will go on and on. As effective as the party’s well-honed protest management techniques are on the mainland, they won’t work in Hong Kong.
The party initially ordered the Chinese media not to cover the protests at all. Over the past week, however, it has discarded that approach and begun to push a narrative for its own citizens, of how anti-China activists in Hong Kong have joined forces with malevolent foreigners like the C.I.A.
State media have also ominously compared the protests to a “color revolution,” the collective term for the protests that took place in the early years of the century and toppled many governments in parts of the former Soviet Union and the Balkans and, a decade later, in the Middle East.
Communist Party officials are forced to study the history of these upheavals and how they were manipulated by foreign governments, especially the United States government, to bring down unfriendly regimes. “Color revolutions,” in other words, are synonymous with regime change in the eyes of the party and must be snuffed out before the disease spreads, in this case, to mainland China itself.
In portraying the protests as a “color revolution” that is trampling on Chinese sovereignty, the party-state may have set the wheels in motion to act in a way that any cool assessment would advise against.
In shifting to a hard-line stance on trade against the United States in recent months, Mr. Xi cleverly anticipated a coming nationalistic backlash in the Politburo against what many had come to see as the Trump administration’s overreach. In China, no leader can afford to vacate the commanding heights of nationalism nor stumble in standing firm against the predations of foreigners.
The same rule applies here, where Beijing, according to its own propaganda, is battling not just Hong Kong’s young hotheads but also the foreigners manipulating them.
Mr. Xi still has the power and the status to set his own course on Hong Kong. But the risk is that the same nationalist dynamic that took root in the trade dispute may now force his hand here as well. The deep disdain that many mainlanders have for Hong Kong, which many regard as a pampered enclave, only reinforces this sentiment.
At some point, the need to punish the protesters for their desecration of Beijing and the affront they represent to the Communist Party will begin to outweigh in internal political calculations the downside of intervention.
It is hard to say where that point lies. The protesters’ takeover of Hong Kong Airport this week seemed for a moment to have bought the crisis to a head. But the secrecy surrounding top-level Chinese politics makes the leaders’ next move hard to predict. China can’t send in the tanks, as it did in 1989. Hong Kong’s hilly topography makes that impossible even if it wanted to. But Beijing could send in anti-riot police to work along their Hong Kong counterparts.
Only Mr. Xi can authorize the offering of an olive branch to the protesters. Even a small concession, however, will be portrayed as giving in.
For someone seen as an all-powerful leader — the “chairman of everything,” as he is called — that might be a bridge too far. Without seduction in his arsenal, Mr. Xi may have to resort to force.