Soldiers from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army briefly left their Hong Kong barracks yesterday to help the clean-up after a week of disruption caused by pro-democracy protests, a rare and highly symbolic troop movement unsolicited by the city’s embattled government.
The action saw scores of soldiers from the garrison, which is confined to the barracks under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, with crewcuts and identical gym kits conduct a lightning-quick removal of bricks and debris near their base.
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.
Confirming the brief deployment 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.
The last time soldiers assisted in the city was in 2018 to clean up after a typhoon.
A spokesman for Hong Kong’s embattled government said the troop movement was not solicited by city authorities and instead was a voluntary community activity initiated by themselves.”
Their appearance on Hong Kong’s streets raised tensions in a city rocked by a week of intensified violence and chaos.
The city remains strewn with debris, barricades and scarred by scorch marks from petrol bombs thrown during clashes between police and protesters.
The increasingly ugly scenes 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.
Although it was not requested, the PLA’s cameo “sends a subtle message that China is behind” the government, said political analyst Dixon Sing.
Arguments and scuffles also broke out yesterday between pro-government and pro-democracy activists during clean-ups across the city.
Earlier yesterday morning a group of around 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.