A short video circulated on Twitter yesterday showed what appeared to be a mass deployment of security personnel in Shenzhen. The video was prematurely identified as showing the People’s Liberation Army preparing for possible deployment to deal with protests in Hong Kong, which understandably prompted some alarm.

However, even the most cursory look at the video and the word “Police” emblazoned on every uniform, shield and vehicle should have made it clear that this was a mass exercise organized by Shenzhen’s Public Security Bureau, and had nothing to do with the PLA. 

On Chinese social media platforms today, more information has emerged about what now clearly seems to have been a police training event, with no apparent link to events unfolding in Hong Kong. Numerous posts to “Shenzhen PSB” (深圳公安), the official Weibo account of the Shenzhen Public Security Bureau, identify the event, which was apparently ongoing today, as “Shenzhen Showing the Sword” (深圳亮剑), a “stability preservation” (维稳) event preparing for the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China and designed to “strengthen tactics, inspire morale, build courage and train and prepare for fully safeguarding the country’s social and political security.”

OK, but seriously — wasn’t this intended as a warning to Hong Kong? Well, it’s difficult to say how Hong Kong might fit into calculations. Certainly, there has been speculation on Chinese social media too that this was the real intention of the exercise, to make a determined show of potential force and thereby terrorize those unruly protesters across the border. Again, this is all speculation.

The force was indeed formidable. According to numbers from the Shenzhen police, the exercises involved 12,000 police officers, 50 armored trucks, 200 automatic weapons, 1,200 armored motorcycles and 5 helicopters.

But if we take a closer look at the videos and photographs being shared from official accounts, and listen a bit more conscientiously to the shouted slogans and declared victories, the “Shenzhen Showing the Sword” event reveals a great deal more about the shaky underside of mainland security than it does about the situation in Hong Kong.

Who are these fictional rioters? Official posts make clear that 1,500 police faced off against around 2,000 mock demonstrators wearing yellow hardhats and brandishing clubs. But notice the white banner that the rioters are carrying. It reads: “Give back the money we earned with our blood and sweat!” And what are those rioters shouting? You can hear shouts of, “Give our money back!” as they rush to attack the waiting lines of police.

 

These rioters are migrant workers. Whatever the purpose of the exercise, the back story here is not about taming the democratic ambitions of residents in the semi-autonomous international financial center across the border, but about an outbreak of unrest stemming perhaps from a sudden factory closure or another such grievance among China’s vast population of rural migrant workers — the kind of incident that seems ever more probable in a period of deep economic uncertainty, when China is engaged in a protracted trade war with the world’s largest economy.

This wave of law enforcement propaganda, in other words, speaks as much to China’s fragility and vulnerability as it does to the Chinese Communist Party’s determination to hold on tight.

As one veteran Chinese journalist wrote on WeChat, sneering at the cruel prejudice and twisted authoritarian logic of the “stability preservation” exercise: “So if migrant workers demand they be given the ‘money earned with their blood and sweat,’ this means they are bandits? If they petition, this is illegal; if they gather, they are arrested; if they leap to their deaths [in protest] this is theatrics. Well, I suppose the only thing they can do is get fleeced.”