HONG KONG: China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers in shorts and t-shirts made a surprising appearance in some Hong Kong streets on Saturday (Nov 16), briefly helping residents clean up debris and barricades after anti-government protests blocked roads.
The presence of PLA troops on the streets, even to help clean up roads near their base, could enrage protesters and stoke further controversy over the Chinese-ruled territory’s autonomous status.
Hong Kong has been rocked by more than five months of demonstrations by protesters angry at perceived Communist Party meddling in the former British colony, which was guaranteed its freedoms when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Beijing denies interfering and has blamed the unrest on foreign influences.
Clashes between protesters and police have become increasingly violent. China has warned that any attempt at independence for Hong Kong will be crushed, but troops have remained inside their base.
Earlier, hundreds of pro-China demonstrators gathered by the city’s legislature and police headquarters, waving Chinese and Hong Kong flags. Some held up posters reading “Police we stand with you”, while others chanted “Support the police”.
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By late afternoon, the soldiers had left the streets outside Baptist University, which neighbours their barracks in the leafy district of Kowloon Tong.
Comments on a Facebook feed of the clean-up reflected that schism, with some applauding the effort by the men based in the garrison and others calling any PLA deployment “unconstitutional” under the handover agreement.
Calls to the PLA Hong Kong garrison office and a media liaison officer went unanswered.
Hundreds of residents moved in to help clear barricaded roads near several universities that were occupied and fortified by protesters this week.
Chinese troops have appeared on local streets only once since the 1997 handover, to help with cleanup operations after a typhoon in late 2018. It was not immediately clear how many were involved on Saturday.
In some cases the two sides clashed, before the dwindling number of anti-government protesters at the campuses retreated.
At the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Kowloon, student protesters also began clearing rubbish, but insisted they wanted to maintain an occupation of the campus and keep control of one of the major tunnels to Hong Kong Island.
The Cross-Harbour tunnel has been closed since Tuesday, its toll booths torched and piles of rubble laid across the road.
“We are here for the long term,” a 20-year-old student who identified himself only as E said.
“We want to do our part and come back to help clean up while it’s not so tense today.”
A 21-year-old student who identified herself as Mario said they intended to continue the strike next week.
“That’s how I feel, but I have to emphasise that in this movement everyone is an individual, there’s no way to ensure that everyone’s thinking the same thing.”
Demosistō, a pro-democracy organisation, said Saturday’s cleanup operation could set a “grave precedent” if the city’s government invites the military to deal with internal problems.
Anti-China students and activists have barricaded at least five campuses in the last week, stockpiling petrol bombs, catapults, bows and arrows and other weapons.
Standing beside a black flag with the slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times,” James Wong, 23, was among a handful of protesters still manning a bridge at Baptist University.
“We didn’t want to confront the people and the PLA troops directly,” he told Reuters. “We are not directly against the PLA, but rather the government. But the PLA should not leave their base because this is Hong Kong territory.”
Wong said even after the campus fortifications have been dismantled “Hong Kong will keep resisting until the government responds to our demands”.
Clashes on Saturday saw at least one petrol bomb thrown before anti-government protesters at the campuses retreated. No soldiers appeared to have been involved in the confrontations.
“We just want our lives to continue,” said one resident who was helping clear streets near HKU. “There are many elderly who need to go the hospital and children who need to go to school. I am very sad to see what is happening in my community.”
In October, Chinese soldiers issued a warning to Hong Kong protesters who shone lasers at their barracks in the city, in the first direct interaction between mainland military forces and protesters.
In August, Beijing moved thousands of troops across the border into Hong Kong in an operation state news agency Xinhua described at the time as a routine “rotation”.
Up to 12,000 troops are now believed to be based across Hong Kong – more than double the usual number garrison number, foreign envoys and security analysts estimate.
China denies interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs and has blamed Western countries for stirring up trouble. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly said he has confidence in the Hong Kong government restoring order.
Police say they are acting with restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.
Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule under a “one country, two systems” formula guaranteeing its colonial-era freedoms. Protesters’ demands include full democracy and an independent investigation into perceived police brutality.
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