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.