In a fresh bid to supress the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, China on Saturday deployed its troops in the city for the first time since the unprecedented pro-democracy protests began in the former British colony more than five months ago over a proposed extradition law, with soldiers in plain clothes clearing the roadblocks. The Hong Kong administration, however, has distanced itself from the troop deployment, saying Beijing has sent the soldiers on its own without any request.
Soldiers from the Hong Kong Garrison of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) -- the world’s largest military—have been deployed for the first time in more than five months of civil unrest in Hong Kong, as dozens marched from their Kowloon garrison to help clear roadblocks, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported.
It was also the first time in over a year that the PLA local garrison has been involved in the public community work. Reacting to the development, a spokesman for the government of the semi-autonomous city told the media: "it was a voluntary community activity by the PLA troops and Hong Kong government did not ask for help to clean-up barricades set up by protestors".
The spokesman said that the PLA garrison in Kowloon Tong “initiated by themselves” the clean-up and the Hong Kong government “has not requested” their help.
Hong Kong was handed over from Britain to China in 1997 under the ‘one country two systems’ formula granting semi-autonomous status. China earlier said that under Article 14 of the city’s Garrison Law, and Basic Law—the city’s mini-constitution, the PLA must not interfere in local affairs but troops can be called out to help if requested by the local government.
Such a request has never been made since the city returned to the Chinese rule 22 years ago. China’s Defence spokesman Col Wu Qian told the media in Beijing in July that troops of the PLA stationed at garrison in Hong Kong can be deployed if the local government requested under the article 14 of the garrison law.
In Beijing, state-run Global Times quoted officials as saying that there is no need to read too much into the clean-up efforts by the soldiers as such activities outside the camp only requires the permission of their commander instead of higher-level command.
Also, notably the soldiers did not wear uniforms and the barricades outside their camp indeed affected normal activities. And the efforts took place during their break on Saturday, the report said.
“Such details show the Hong Kong PLA Garrison does not want to draw extra attention and wants to lower the sensitivity associated with their PLA Hong Kong Garrison identity,” the sources said.
The efforts on Saturday cannot be interpreted as any hint of what the PLA Hong Kong Garrison will or will not do next, the report quoted officials as saying.
The soldiers, mostly in green T-shirts and black shorts, and carrying red buckets, ran out of the PLA’s Kowloon Tong barracks at about 4 PM to clear obstacles on Renfrew Road, near Baptist University’s campus, the report said.
A soldier said their action had nothing to do with the Hong Kong government. “We initiated this! Stopping violence and ending chaos is our responsibility,” he said, quoting a phrase coined by President Xi Jinping. Firefighters and police officers also joined the soldiers.
Earlier, Hong Kong Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu said the PLA could freely decide on whether to send soldiers to perform volunteer services outside military sites and the local government had no record of how many times this has happened.
In October last year, more than 400 soldiers were sent in batches to Hong Kong’s country parks to help remove trees felled during Typhoon Mangkhut.
On Thursday, Xi broke his silence over Hong Kong’s unprecedented pro-democracy protests threatening China’s control over the former British colony, saying the most pressing task at present was to bring violence and chaos to an end and restore order.
Xi made the comments at the 11th BRICS Summit in Brasilia, China’s state-run Xinhua news agency reported. Hong Kong is rocked by unprecedented pro-democracy protests for over five months and in the past few weeks they grew violent, bringing the international financial centre virtually to a grinding halt.
The protests which began over a proposed extradition law by the Hong Kong administration sparked fear of extradition of locals to the Chinese mainland for prosecution. It later turned into a major pro-democracy movement with demands to elect their local officials without the Chinese interference.
The protestors, mainly youth, are demanding pro-China Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s resignation, inquiry into police brutalities and universal franchise of ‘one person one vote’ with freedom for all the locals to contest elections for the local legislature.
Xi said the continuous radical violent activities in Hong Kong seriously trampled the rule of law and the social order, seriously disturb Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, and seriously challenge the ‘one country, two systems’ bottom line, the Xinhua report said.
“We will continue to firmly support the chief executive in leading the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government to govern in accordance with the law, firmly support the Hong Kong police in strictly enforcing the law, and firmly support the Hong Kong judicial bodies in severely punishing the violent criminals in accordance with the law,” the Chinese President said.