BEIJING – A sharp escalation of violence in Hong Kong is once again raising the question of how China's central government will respond: Will it intervene, or allow the chaos to persist?
The Liaison Office, which represents mainland authorities in Hong Kong, said Wednesday that actions in the semi-autonomous territory were "slipping into the abyss of terrorism." It pointed out that a man was set on fire Monday during an argument with demonstrators, leaving him in critical condition.
On the same day, a police officer shot a protester who was then taken to a hospital, also in critical condition.
The unabating tumult, now in its sixth month, may give China's ruling Communist Party the justification it needs to take more direct action, analysts said.
"Beijing is hoping that the Hong Kong community will start blaming the protesters and support the restoration of order," said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political science professor at Hong Kong Baptist University.
The central government must wait for the right moment to step in, Cabestan said, adding that if China acts before public opinion is fully on its side, it could exacerbate existing discontent.
While the movement began peacefully in June to oppose a now-withdrawn extradition bill, it has been increasingly defined by smaller groups of hard-core demonstrators bent on sowing chaos. Their actions, which have included setting cars on fire and smashing storefronts, have alienated many residents.
The Liaison Office described the act of setting the man on fire as "flagrant terrorism," and pledged support for Hong Kong authorities taking measures to curb "various illegal acts of violence and acts of terrorism."
Whereas Chinese authorities previously called the demonstrators "rioters" with behavior "close to terrorism," they are now calling them "murderers" and tying them more explicitly to terrorism. This label may presage more severe enforcement measures and impact how demonstrators are ultimately prosecuted.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 under the framework of "one country, two systems," a policy that promises Hong Kong certain democratic rights not granted to the mainland. But the arrests of pro-democracy activists and booksellers in recent years have raised fears among Hong Kong residents that Beijing is encroaching on the city's freedoms.
During a key meeting of the party's Central Committee at the end of October, Chinese leaders proposed establishing and strengthening the "legal system and enforcement mechanism for safeguarding national security" in special administrative regions like Hong Kong and Macao.
A meeting summary from China's official Xinhua news agency did not elaborate on what this would entail, but Chinese officials have variously pointed to Article 14, Article 18 and Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's de facto constitution.
Article 14 allows the Hong Kong-based garrison of the Chinese military to help with public order maintenance at the request of the local government. Article 18 states that national laws may be applied in Hong Kong if China's ceremonial parliament decides that the region is in a "state of emergency" that endangers national unity or security.
"When necessary, the People's Armed Police Force and the People's Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison will back you up," the nationalistic Global Times said in an editorial Monday, addressing the Hong Kong police.
Zhang Xiaoming, head of the Cabinet's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, said over the weekend that Hong Kong has yet to fulfill Article 23, which stipulates that the city will "enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion" against the central government. These laws should also ban the theft of state secrets and prevent foreign political organizations from conducting political activities in Hong Kong. Beijing has repeatedly accused foreign forces of fomenting the unrest.
Proposing new national security legislation is likely to further inflame the protests, though China may not be opposed to that, said Joseph Cheng, a pro-democracy advocate and retired City University of Hong Kong political scientist.
China has made it clear that it intends to maintain a hard line politically, refusing to make any concessions to protesters while pushing ahead with unpopular security legislation, Cheng said.
A further concern is that Beijing might order the postponement of Hong Kong's local assembly elections scheduled for Nov. 24, freezing in place the current pro-China makeup of the body and avoiding possible embarrassment for the administration of Hong Kong's leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Although Lam has been criticized for a lack of leadership and her inflexibility, she has faithfully carried out Beijing's will. During meetings last week in Shanghai and Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed support for her work.
At least for now, the central government appears to be leaving enforcement to local authorities, said Ben Bland, a research fellow at Australia's Lowy Institute and author of "Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China's Shadow."
This approach allows the party to keep the issue tied to Hong Kong, as opposed to one that requires intervention at a higher level, Bland said, adding that while Beijing has several options for cracking down on the protests, each carries its own risks and could aggravate tensions.
As protesters' tactics have become increasingly extreme, crippling regular operations in the city and plunging various districts into mayhem, Hong Kong's government has shifted its focus toward the violence and away from the democratic reforms the movement intended to advocate.
"We all feel very depressed because we don't see the light at the end of the tunnel," Cheng said.