News Analysis

As reported by The Guardian and Fox News, aerial photos taken just outside of Hong Kong, in the province of Shenzhen, show a buildup of military personnel carriers being stored inside a soccer stadium, while additional vehicles have been filmed moving toward the Hong Kong border.

A limited number of Chinese military personnel, stationed inside Hong Kong, have also been conducting small-scale riot-control drills during the past two weeks, ostensibly in preparation to confront anti-communist protesters in the streets.

It remains unclear whether Beijing’s communist government would actually deploy military troops in the Special Administrative Region, or whether the moves of the past few days are simply an attempt to intimidate the protesters.

China’s Party leader Xi Jinping faces a real dilemma. If Beijing were to display its heavy-handed tactics and proceed with a military response in Hong Kong, it would almost certainly draw condemnation from the world community. What’s more, involvement by China’s military is unlikely to bring the protests to an end.

Unlike the infamous military crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, in 1989, the tens of thousands of resilient protesters in Hong Kong have spread throughout the city, and they are highly mobile. A few military garrisons would not be able to stop or even slow down the protesters, who have shown that they will simply jump into the subways and move from one location to another.

If Beijing were to place the entire city of Hong Kong under a state of martial law, it might prove to be the worst decision China’s government could possibly make. First, martial law would bring the region’s major commercial center to a virtual standstill, much more so than the protesters themselves have been able to accomplish. Second, it would likely build near-unanimous support for the protests throughout the region by placing on full display the brazen authoritarianism that the city has been fighting against.

Any military incident that occurs amid tensions with Hong Kong civilians could also lead to unanticipated repercussions inside mainland China, where social unrest has continued to build during the past decade.

Weighing Bejing’s limited options, as it faces the largest wave of anti-communist protests during the past 30 years, it becomes clearer why the Communist Party has been slow to react.

Former U.S. Ambassador to China Max Baucus shared his view of the Hong Kong protests, Tuesday, Aug. 13, on CNBC’s program Squawk Box, having traveled to the city amid the protests. Baucus surmised, “China is getting very concerned, … and China has to save face. They just can’t give in to the demands that the protesters are asking for, unless there’s some way that both sides can save face.”

Saving face will likely prove difficult for China’s Communist Party, however, as the Party’s face only seems to draw a greater rebuke in Hong Kong the more it is shown.