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.

According to Basic Law, (Hong Kong’s mini-constitution), Chinese forces stationed by Beijing in the city are forbidden to interfere with local affairs unless Hong Kong officials ask Beijing for the troops’ help. A Hong Kong government spokesperson said the soldiers’ assistance this weekend had not been requested, describing it as a “purely a voluntary community activity initiated by themselves.”

Of course others can point to this seemingly innocent act as a low key show of force and an ever-so-slightly incremental display of power. While the Chinese are going far to not appear to be pushing hard, yet this is, according to some, a way for the Chinese mainland government to show to the people of Hong Kong, who are protesting for democracy, that their prospects for achieving their goals appear less and less likely. Their hopes for autonomy are eroding and the Chinese have no intention of letting Hong Kong go.

The pro-democracy protesters know full well what happened at Tiananmen Square and the hidden meaning is that this can happen again. 

Hong Kong has seen some very violent protests since June. The pro-democracy protesters have also changed tactics lately. The weekend protests are now a thing of the past as they’ve switched to weekdays. This change is designed to disrupt the normal day-to-day activities of the city, and it has further inflamed the government. 

Photo: Wikipedia Video: CNA YouTube