Chinese state media described the troop movement in the early hours on Thursday as routine, while Asian and Western diplomats watching the movements of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in the former British colony had been expecting it.
Regardless of the movement being termed “routine”, the timing is likely to hit nerves in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, which returned to Chinese control in 1997 under a “One State, Two Systems” agreement that gave Hong Kong special status.
In recent weeks, alarms were raised in Hong Kong after a massing of Chinese forces was revealed across the border in the mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen.
China had also warned that Beijing would not “sit by and watch” as unrest continued in the semi-autonomous city.
In 2018, the Chinese army had executed a similar troop rotation, saying in a statement at the time that they had “maintained with no change” the number of troops and amount of equipment stationed in Hong Kong.
That reassurance was not included in Thursday’s announcement.
China’s military will make even greater “new” contributions to maintaining Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, state news agency Xinhua cited the PLA garrison in the territory as saying.
The military has completed a routine troop rotation in Hong Kong, with air, land and maritime forces having entered the territory, the report said.
Observers estimate the Hong Kong garrison numbers between 8,000 and 10,000 troops, split between bases in southern China and a network of former British army barracks in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has been engulfed in angry and sometimes violent protests against the government for three months, sparked by a now-suspended extradition bill and concerns that Beijing was trying to bring the territory under greater mainland control.
The protests are the greatest political challenge to Hong Kong’s government since the territory returned to Chinese rule in 1997, and one of the biggest popular challenges to Chinese leader Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
China has denounced the protests and accused the United States and the United Kingdom of interfering in its affairs in Hong Kong, warning that forceful intervention was possible.
On Tuesday, Beijing again warned against foreign interference in Hong Kong after the leaders participating in the G7 summit issued a statement calling for calm and supporting Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has not ruled out the possibility of her administration invoking emergency powers to quell the protests.
She said in a news briefing on Tuesday that the violence was becoming more serious, but she was confident the government could handle the crisis itself.
On Saturday, another mass protest is being organised by the Civil Human Rights Front, the same group that drew millions of people to the streets in recent months.
The protest will mark five years since Beijing ruled out universal suffrage for Hong Kong.
SOURCE: Reuters news agency