Asia-Pacific News

Will Hong Kong violence spark action from China?

A pro-democracy protester shakes his fist at police officers as they advance in Hong Kong on October 15, 2014.
Alex Ogle | AFP | Getty Images

Clashes between police and pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong escalated early Wednesday, but analysts say Beijing is unlikely to step in with harsher force.

Police used pepper spray on protesters Wednesday morning, while attempting to clear a major road that had been barricaded with concrete slabs overnight, Reuters reported.

Protests entered their third week on Monday and mark the worst period of unrest since the 1960s, but authorities in Beijing remain mum.

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"It is unlikely that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) garrison in Hong Kong will take part. President Xi Ping and other top officials have indicated that they will not use the soldiers," said Willy Lam, professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

What if…

The only scenario where the PLA might step in would be if police action such as the use of tear gas or rubber bullets triggered a large-scale outbreak of disorder, Lam said.

Police used tear gas and batons during the first 24 hours of protest, but have since taken a less aggressive approach following heavy criticism.

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"You have to remember that the headquarters of the PLA Garrison of Hong Kong is right next to the central government office where the main arena of the occupation is, so there's always a possibility that the soldiers might be deployed, but Beijing's stance is that the soldiers will not be used," Lam added.

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Beijing's dilemma

Authorities in Beijing face a tricky dilemma: they would likely use force to end a similar uprising in China, but Hong Kong's 'one country, two systems' structure means any such action would draw international criticism. However, Beijing shows no sign of yielding to protesters' demands.

"Beijing is not going to do a crackdown because that's what many demonstrators want, and they're not going to give in at the same time," Michael Degolyer, director of the HK Transition Project, a research organization targeting improved governance, told CNBC.

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"Beijing is much more likely to wait the protesters out, with certain bounds of just how much disruption they'll put up with in terms of essential road connections particularly for emergency services. And they'll wait for public opinion to switch," he said.

Even though PLA intervention looks unlikely, Lam expects firmer action from Hong Kong police.

"The fact that the police are clearing barricades from some minor areas shows that [Chief Executive] CY Leung's administration is determined to take action," he said.

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Although some smaller areas of the protests – Kowloon for example – have been cleared, the main arena of occupation outside central government buildings remains secure. Leung will be under major pressure to break up protests there, Lam said.