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Hong Kong protests: Will China send in the army to crack down on the chaos?

As three months of mass protests in Hong Kong plunge the city into chaos, demonstrators and police have engaged in a delicate cat-and-mouse game.

On the streets, near-daily standoffs have turned violent as night falls.

The move to the airport, a major transport artery for the continent, appears to have been designed to force things to a head. Protesters hope hitting the city where it most hurts will propel the Hong Kong government into action.

But two days after protesters brought the airport to a halt, riot police stalked the periphery, deploying pepper spray but holding back from large-scale violence. One officer trying to make an arrest whipped out a gun but didn't fire, after protesters grabbed his baton and used it to beat him down.

And while Beijing has significantly ramped up its rhetoric, it has held back from deploying any force.

On Wednesday, China's Hong Kong affairs office condemned what it called "near-terrorist acts" at Hong Kong's airport and reiterated support for local authorities to severely punish those responsible.

The Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office  also strongly condemned attacks against a reporter from China's Global Times newspaper and a traveller at the airport by what it said were violent protesters.

The statement was the second time in a matter of days that Beijing had likened the violence to terrorism and there are ominous signs of a crackdown that could come. Chinese state media videos of military and police engaging in aggressive anti-riot drills serve as a warning that reinforcements for the Hong Kong authorities are ready to deploy at a moment's notice.

And Hong Kong police have made clear there are plenty more crowd-control measures in its arsenal, unveiling armoured trucks equipped with water cannons on Monday.

But for now, city officials and the leading authority - the Chinese Communist Party - have refrained from unleashing extreme measures, such as shooting live rounds and sending in the military.

Doing so would essentially mean the end of the long-cherished "one country, two systems" policy that has governed the former British colony for so long, allowing the territory to maintain freedoms unseen in mainland China. The city would also likely experience a spectacular fall from its status as a global financial hub. "It would be a major threshold for Beijing to cross," said Steve Tsang, director of the University of London's SOAS China Institute.

Mass protests have periodically dotted Hong Kong for the last 22 years since it was returned to Chinese rule, but the latest round has pushed the edge far faster than both protesters and government could have expected.

The worry now is that both sides may have lost control of the trajectory. The violence has enraged protesters, who are also escalating their tactics, at times throwing heavy metal street signs and bricks to express anger at the police. To create maximum chaos, demonstrators are also using a flash mob strategy to disrupt several neighbourhoods.

Many are engaging in herd mentality - following others without knowing from where the directions are coming.

And experts say there's no telling what the government might do next, especially as Beijing officials accuse protesters of fomenting a "colour revolution" with help from foreign forces - an anti-Communist uprising that would be its worst nightmare.

The fear, for many, is a crackdown with a bitter end. Many of those out on the streets now are too young to remember the military tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square in 1989. But Beijing's memory is long.