Thursday 19 September 2019

China's troop movements raise tension in Hong Kong

Presence: Troops by a row of army vehicles at the Shek Kong military base of People’s Liberation Army in New Territories, Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters
Presence: Troops by a row of army vehicles at the Shek Kong military base of People’s Liberation Army in New Territories, Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters

Sophia Yan

China sent a new batch of troops into Hong Kong yesterday (Thursday) as anti-government protesters planned to hold yet another citywide march and mass demonstrations.

Chinese state media released images and video footage of a convoy of armoured carriers and a ship entering Hong Kong before dawn, saying the military had completed a "routine annual rotation" of its air, land and maritime forces.

While People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops have been rotated to Hong Kong around this time in previous years, yesterday's move comes amid the former British colony's biggest political crisis since being returned to Beijing in 1997, as pro-democracy protests entered their fourth month.

"I don't believe that, given the sensitive timing that we have right now, that this is anything routine," Dennis Kwok, a pro-democracy politician, told public broadcaster RTHK.

"I believe it's a deliberate posture on the part of the PLA to tell, or warn, the Hong Kong people that they [the troops] may be deployed."

The Chinese statement about rotating troops in the previous two years also said that the number of soldiers in Hong Kong "was maintained without change", though that was not stated in this year's Beijing announcement.

The new soldiers were moved into Hong Kong as police banned protesters from holding another large march through city streets tomorrow, though organisers plan to appeal.

Protesters first took to the streets in early June against an extradition proposal that would have sent suspects to face trial in mainland China.

Although city leaders eventually suspended the bill, protesters have continued to call for its formal withdrawal to prevent it from being tabled and passed quickly in the future.

The marchers' demands have since expanded to include an independent inquiry into policing of the protests, direct leadership elections, and the resignation of Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong chief executive. The police's forceful tactics have further enraged protesters, with one woman becoming a leading figure in denouncing police brutality after her eye was injured, allegedly by a police beanbag round.

City leaders have "opened the door for the Hong Kong police force to descend from a ... disciplined service that was supposed to uphold the rule of law and protect lives into a gang of criminals", she said in a video released yesterday, her first public statement since her injury.

As the unrest continues and clashes become increasingly violent, worries over military intervention by Beijing have grown.

The Chinese Communist Party is likely keen to restore order and avoid being embarrassed by a public challenge to its authority before October 1, when the country will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China.

The PLA is estimated to maintain a garrison of 8,000 to 10,000 troops in Hong Kong at any one time, along with a naval squadron and a helicopter regiment, some based in former British Army barracks, with more troops stationed in a neighbouring city.

Trucks full of white-gloved PLA soldiers rolled into Hong Kong within hours of the 1997 handover of power, raising questions about their role.

They stage frequent drills but have seldom since been seen outside their bases. Yesterday, witnesses reported more activity in and around the PLA's Shek Kong military base in the rural New Territories than has been apparent in recent months.

Beijing has accused the United States and Britain of interfering in its affairs in Hong Kong, and sent clear warnings that forceful intervention is possible.

Hundreds of People's Armed Police this month conducted exercises at a sports stadium in Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong, a day after the US State Department said it was "deeply concerned" about their movements.

Chinese defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang told a news briefing that the timing of the troop rotation was similar to that of previous years to "meet the demands of defending Hong Kong".

Mr Ren said the garrison troops would fulfill their obligation of defending Hong Kong according to the law and would follow the orders of the Communist Party. (© Daily Telegraph, London and agencies)

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