The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) rarely leaves its barracks in Hong Kong, so when they are seen out in the city it is a reminder that they have the numbers and the power to crush any opposition. So it was noteworthy to see hundreds of mainland Chinese troops clad in only OD t-shirts and black workout shorts out in the streets. (The last time the PLA troops were seen outside their barracks was about a year ago when they once again helped clean up after Typhoon Mangkhut swept through the area.)

The troops were very visible. They were clearing the former British colony’s streets of debris, bricks, metal bars and paving stones after some of the most violent pro-democracy protests yet in the semi-autonomous territory.

The Chinese troops were seen singing while marching in cadence and carrying brooms. But the meaning was clear: Today they are marching in physical training gear with brooms; tomorrow they could be on the march with rifles.

The PLA garrison is believed to be at least 10,000 strong and possibly as many as 12,000.

The street clearing helps the government as the protesters put the debris in the streets to slow down the police. 

The seemingly innocuous move could be looked in two different ways. The Chinese troops, carefully clad in PT uniforms, which were worn so as to appear as unaggressive as possible, were just cleaning up the city right in front of their barracks. However, some of the Chinese troops were possibly Special Operations soldiers, as some were seen with the logo of “Special Forces, the Eighth Company” or “Xuefeng Special Operations Brigade” on their t-shirts.

The troops didn’t venture far, just a few blocks from the gate of their base, and cleaned up the roadway that runs parallel to their base. The entire operation took less than an hour.

“They are not wearing a uniform and this is not a military mission. They are not interfering with any lawful local affairs. This is not disaster relief work or involves keeping public order. They are just there to sweep streets. There is no law to regulate that,” said Zeng Zhiping a retired PLA Colonel who is now a professor.