Soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army were deployed on the streets of Hong Kong over the weekend for the first time in five months of increasingly rancorous protests.
The troops were unarmed, dressed in plain clothes, and assigned primarily to clean up debris and roadblocks created by protesters. Chinese officials and state-run media insisted the people of Hong Kong welcomed the deployment and Western media reports to the contrary were hysterical over-reactions.
A group of about 50 PLA soldiers emerged from their barracks in Kowloon East on Saturday afternoon and began clearing debris from Renfrew Road. They said they were pitching in to join local police and firefighters to help clear the streets.
“We volunteered! Stopping violence and ending chaos is our responsibility,” one soldier told the South China Morning Post, which noted that “stopping violence and ending chaos” is a phrase employed by Chinese dictator Xi Jinping when he speaks about the Hong Kong protests.
After working for about an hour, the PLA soldiers “regrouped and marched back to their barracks, shouting patriotic slogans in unison,” according to the SCMP.
A group of opposition lawmakers soon issued a joint statement accusing the PLA of violating Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the code of laws established after the United Kingdom relinquished control of the city to Beijing, as well as the “Garrison Law,” which specifically forbids the Chinese military from interfering in local affairs and requires them to notify the Hong Kong government in advance of all activities. Defenders of the cleanup activity said these laws were not an issue because the soldiers volunteered, wore plain clothes, and carried no weapons.
Hong Kong laws also provide a procedure for the local government to request assistance from the military in emergency situations, but spokespeople for the government and PLA confirmed on Saturday that no such request was made. According to the PLA, the soldiers saw people cleaning up the streets and volunteered to help.
“There were some Hong Kong citizens clearing roadblocks near the PLA Hong Kong garrison. The soldiers from the PLA Hong Kong garrison joined these citizens in clearing these roadblocks and their efforts were welcomed by Hong Kong citizens,” a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said on Monday.
The SCMP saw Saturday as a comparatively peaceful day after a week of violent clashes and speculated the “radical” elements of the protest movement lost a significant public relations battle over the weekend by trying to prevent people from cleaning up the streets, in some cases even physically attacking them.
China’s state-run Global Times mocked Western media for its “unwarranted speculation” and “sensationalized” coverage of the PLA deployment, describing the soldiers as “ordinary residents lawfully in Hong Kong” who exercised their right to “charitably” join a volunteer cleanup effort.
The Global Times also claimed the constant repetition of Xi’s slogan about “stopping violence and ending chaos” just proves how inspiring Xi’s remarks were last week:
Xinwen Lianbo, the main nightly news program broadcast by China Central Television (CCTV), spent about 10 minutes on Saturday focusing on Hong Kong affairs after Chinese President Xi Jinping said on Thursday in Brazil that the most pressing task for Hong Kong at present is to bring the violence and chaos to an end and restore order.
The program showed the reactions to Xi’s remarks among Hong Kong society and pro-establishment politicians, who expressed confidence that the violence and riots would be stopped after the remarks. The program also amplified opinions from scholars, journalists and diplomats across the world who agreed with Xi’s judgment over the current Hong Kong situation and condemned the violent incidents in the city.
The anchors also read an editorial article published by the People’s Daily and an editorial by CCTV stressing that Xi’s remarks are the strongest voice from the central government on ending the violence and chaos in Hong Kong, and that the 1.4 billion people of the whole country will strongly back Hong Kong to restore social order.
The Hong Kong lawmakers who objected to the PLA troops on the street argued that the pro-Beijing government of Hong Kong has “repeatedly cooperated to create excuses” for such transgressions against the Basic Law.
“They want the Hong Kong people to get used to the PLA’s public activities in Hong Kong and gradually rationalize the PLA’s operations in Hong Kong under boiling frog effect,” the lawmakers said, noting that while they weren’t wearing full dress or combat uniforms, the soldiers were still dressed in a way that made it obvious they were PLA troops. Some of the soldiers were seen wearing T-shirts that ominously referenced two elite counter-terrorism units of the PLA.