Hong Kong police and protesters renewed clashes on Sunday, exchanging tear gas and petrol bombs outside a garrison of China’s People’s Liberation Army, after a day of relative calm following one of the most violent weeks in the territory’s political crisis.
The confrontations outside Hong Kong Polytechnic University come after Chinese soldiers stationed in the city cleared bricks and debris from the streets, with videos of the clean-up effort shared widely in Chinese state media and on Weibo, the Chinese social media platform.
It was the first time the PLA have appeared on the streets since the unrest began more than five months ago in what many has been seen as a highly symbolic and politically charged move.
The prospect that Beijing would use PLA troops to crush the protests has loomed over the demonstrations, culminating in August when Chinese state media shared images of a troop build-up in Shenzhen, the mainland Chinese city which borders Hong Kong.
“We initiated this. Stopping violence and ending chaos is our responsibility,” a PLA soldier told reporters in a video that was widely circulated on social media, using a phrase previously used by Chinese president Xi Jinping. A Hong Kong government spokesperson said the PLA’s clean-up efforts were “purely self-initiated voluntary community activity” and the government had not requested assistance.
Chinese troops have been stationed in Hong Kong since the UK handed over the territory to China in 1997. Under Article 14 of Hong Kong’s mini constitution, known as the Basic Law, the PLA is not allowed to interfere in local affairs unless the Hong Kong government requests its help to provide disaster relief or maintain public order. The PLA helped with clean up efforts in Hong Kong after Typhoon Mangkhut last year, the first time Chinese soldiers undertook such a role.
A group of pro-democracy lawmakers released a statement condemning the PLA’s actions on Saturday, saying it violated the Basic Law. “The government is attempting to make Hong Kong citizens increasingly used to and accepting of the PLA conducting public activities in Hong Kong, as if we were frogs in boiling water,” the statement said.
One frontline police officer said some of his colleagues were “very happy” about the PLA’s assistance. The stretched, 30,000-strong police force has become the only thing standing between angry protesters and an increasingly ineffectual government in Hong Kong.
Some people in Hong Kong took to social media to express their discontent at the presence of Chinese troops on the streets. “Today they voluntarily clean up. Next time they will voluntarily open fire,” read a widely circulated, anonymous post on social media.