Chinese PLA soldiers clear debris from Hong Kong streets as protests continue to flare up

Updated November 17, 2019 10:52:37

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China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers have appeared in shorts and T-shirts in Hong Kong streets, helping residents clean up debris from anti-government protests, in a rare and highly symbolic troop movement unsolicited by the city’s embattled government.

Key points:

  • Chinese troops appeared on streets only once since the 1997 handover to help clear up after a typhoon in 2018
  • Hong Kong’s Government says the troop movement was not requested but “was a voluntary community activity”
  • Protesters and police clashed again near Hong Kong Polytechnic University on Saturday

Scores of soldiers from the garrison, which is confined to the barracks under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, sported crewcuts and identical gym kits as they conducted a rapid removal of bricks and debris near their base.

Confirming the brief clean-up on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, the PLA said it acted to open a debris-strewn road outside their Kowloon Tong barracks to traffic, winning “applause from residents” in the process.

Chinese state media has repeatedly warned that troops could be deployed to quell an unprecedented crisis in the semi-autonomous city that has entered its sixth month.

Photo: A protester throws a Molotov cocktail at police near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong on Saturday night. (AP: Ng Han Guan)

Chinese troops have appeared on streets only once since the 1997 handover, to help clear up after a typhoon in 2018.

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 said any attempt at independence for Hong Kong will be crushed, but troops have remained inside their base.

‘Tomorrow they will come to take our lives’

A spokesman for Hong Kong’s embattled government said the troop movement had not been requested by city authorities but was instead a “voluntary community activity initiated by themselves”.

But their appearance on Hong Kong’s streets also raised tensions in a city rocked by a week of intensified violence and chaos.

Soldiers carry buckets filled with bricks. Photo: Chinese PLA soldiers cleaning the streets filled with debris and bricks from anti-government protests. (HKFP/AFP:Kris Cheng)

“Today they come to pick up rocks, tomorrow they will come to take our lives,” said one Hong Kong Facebook user under a video showing the troops in clean-up action.

The city remains strewn with debris and barricades following a week-long campaign of roadblocks, vandalism and protest that has shut down large chunks of the train and metro network and forced schools to shut and universities to cancel classes.

On Saturday night (local time), protesters and police clashed again near Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where volleys of tears gas were fired and petrol bombs thrown.

The increasingly ugly scenes this week prompted China’s President Xi Jinping to warn the “one country, two systems” model governing Hong Kong was being jeopardised by the protests.

Semi-autonomous Hong Kong enjoys more freedoms than the mainland, although many feel those liberties are being chipped away.

Article 14 of the Basic Law — Hong Kong’s mini-constitution since its handover from Britain to China in 1997 — allows the local government to request help from PLA garrisons in the city in the event of a public order breakdown.

A protestor throws a petrol bomb during protests in Hong Kong. Photo: Hong Kong has been rocked by violent protests for more than five months. (THU/AFP: Ye Aung)

Although it was not requested, the PLA’s cameo “sends a subtle message that China is behind” the Government, said political analyst Dixon Sing.

“It also gives a hint to the protesters … that if things really turn sour, China can still use the PLA in a more naked manner,” he added.

The protests started against a now shelved bill to allow extradition to China but have billowed into wider calls for democracy.

Two people have died this month as the violence worsened, while the financial hub has been pushed into a recession by the turmoil.

‘We don’t touch them’

Universities have emerged as bases for a movement previously defined by its fluid, unpredictable nature with stockpiles of weapons and supplies.

Hong Kong is a city divided and reactions to the movement from inside the PLA garrison reflected that schism.

soldeirs carrying debris in Hong Kong's streets. Photo: Chinese troops have appeared on streets only once since the 1997 handover, to help clear up after a typhoon in 2018. (HKFP/AFP: Kris Cheng )

A woman in her 50s who gave her name only as Lee, applauded the clean-up effort near the Kowloon Tong PLA base, saying it felt “so good” to see them.

“How did a Hong Kong that was doing just fine become like this?” she said.

But pro-democracy protesters, who remained in the streets as night fell, read the hour-long action from the barracks as a warning.

“We don’t touch them (the PLA barracks) we don’t know what kind of weapons they have and their mindset is also different from Hong Kong police,” said a 24-year-old student protester who identified himself by the surname Leung.

Arguments and scuffles also broke out on Saturday between pro-government and pro-democracy activists during clean-ups across the city.

At the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Kowloon, student protesters insisted they wanted to maintain an occupation of the campus and keep control of one of the major tunnels to Hong Kong Island.

Earlier on Saturday morning a group of about 500 people, mostly middle-aged and senior citizens, rallied outside the Hong Kong Government’s headquarters to show support for the police, who have been heavily criticised over their handling of the crisis.

Reuters/AFP

Topics: unrest-conflict-and-war, world-politics, government-and-politics, university-and-further-education, education, communism, hong-kong, asia, china

First posted November 17, 2019 08:51:01