(Bloomberg) -- Soldiers from China’s People’s Liberation Army took the rare step of leaving their barracks to join cleanup efforts in Hong Kong on Saturday to clear roads and other barricades set up during a week of anti-government protests.
The soldiers marched from their barracks in the Kowloon Tong district in green T-shirts and black shorts around 4 p.m. This was the first time the PLA has ventured on to the streets since the unrest began five months ago. They helped crowds of people near Hong Kong Baptist University remove bricks and rubble from the roads.
“The Hong Kong garrison’s assistance in the clearing of road blocks outside the Osborn Barracks in Kowloon Tong was purely a voluntary community activity initiated by themselves,” a Hong Kong government spokesman said. “The HKSAR government has not requested the garrison’s assistance.”
The PLA’s long-time presence in Hong Kong has long been a source of anxiety for pro-democracy advocates in the former British colony. While Chinese authorities have repeatedly reaffirmed their right under Hong Kong law to intervene if necessary, they’ve said that no such move is needed. The PLA’s Hong Kong garrison released a statement Saturday confirming that some troops helped clean up the road outside of the barracks.
There’s “no need to read too much” into the efforts, which can’t be interpreted as a hint of what the Hong Kong garrison would or wouldn’t do next, the Global Times newspaper cited people close to the PLA as saying. The gesture was “social work” that only needed the permission of the soldiers’ commander, it said. The Global Times is a Chinese tabloid run by the People’s Daily, the flagship newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party.
The city’s lawmakers have expressed concern that mainland police may be helping Hong Kong authorities in operations to clear protesters. Government officials have repeatedly denied the claims.
“This time it’s even more sensitive because the issues we are now facing are political and the fear of Beijing’s interference or using force is very threatening to Hong Kong’s stability,” said Chung Kim Wah, director for social policy studies at Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Chinese troops have been stationed in Hong Kong since the British handed the city back to China in 1997. Under the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, the PLA is not allowed to interfere in local affairs unless called upon the Hong Kong government to help with disaster relief or to restore public order.
“It may a good PR exercise for the PLA, since some people welcome their assistance in clearing up the road blocks,” said Emily Lau, a former head of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party. “However, others are disturbed and say it may be in breach of the Basic Law because they are not supposed to interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs.”
On Chinese Twitter-like social-media platform Weibo, a hashtag was trending on the topic, and posts related to it generated about 20 million views within hours.
The Hong Kong government has never requested PLA deployment. In 2018, more than 400 soldiers helped clear fallen trees following Typhoon Mangkhut, the first time they had undertaken such a role.
This week, Hong Kong police appointed 100 Correctional Services Department officers as special constables to assist during the protests.
(Adds statement from PLA in fourth paragraph, comment in seventh paragraph.)
--With assistance from Tongjian Dong and Jacob Gu.
To contact the reporter on this story: Shelly Banjo in Hong Kong at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Shamim Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org, Stanley James
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