Chinese military vehicles have been seen moving across the border into Hong Kong, in what the military said were regular troop movements, as fears rose that the city could see a Beijing-led crackdown after months of political unrest.
Following witness reports of the movements in the early hours of Thursday, state-run news agency Xinhua released a report that the Hong Kong Garrison of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was making a scheduled rotation and that it was an “annual normal routine”.
The images published by Xinhua showed armoured carriers and trucks carrying troops at the border, and a naval vessel arriving in Hong Kong.
In the previous two rotations – in 2017 and 2018 – state media reports noted that the number of troops and equipment had not changed. This year the report does not include that detail. It is estimated there are between 8,000 and 10,000 troops in the garrison, on either side of the border.
The movements come before a major anti-government demonstration planned for Saturday, as Hong Kong nears its third month of mass protests. On Thursday, the organiser of the demonstration, Civil Human Rights Front, received notice that police had banned the event.
Hong Kong lawmaker Dennis Kwok of the Civic party called the troop movements political posturing. “I believe this is a deliberate posture on the part of the PLA to tell or warn the Hong Kong people that it may be deployed,” Kwok told public broadcaster RTHK.
“As I said time and again, the use of troops in Hong Kong will be the end of Hong Kong, and I would warn against any such move on the part of the central people’s government.”
The protests, triggered in June by an extradition bill that would send suspects to mainland China, represent the sharpest challenge to Beijing’s authority since the handover. In recent weeks, China has issued increasingly severe warnings.
The PLA released a propaganda video earlier this month showing armed police and soldiers subduing people in yellow hard hats and black tops, the unofficial uniform of the Hong Kong demonstrators.
As concerns about a possible crackdown intensify in Hong Kong, the Hong Kong Internet Service Providers Association said on Wednesday it was troubled by reports that the local government might issue an executive order to block selective websites or applications.
It said such an order would be the “end of the open Internet of Hong Kong” and “permanently deter international businesses from positing their businesses and investments in Hong Kong”.
The group also said it would be an ineffective move as it “would not deter nor stop determined users from accessing their desired services” through a virtual private network (VPN).