The commander of the Chinese military garrison in Hong Kong has addressed the city’s ongoing protest movement for the first time, warning that violence by pro-democracy groups “should not be tolerated.”
Speaking during a reception in the city to celebrate the 92nd anniversary of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Maj. Gen. Chen Daoxiang said the garrison resolutely supported the Hong Kong government and its judiciary system “and for them to punish those violent criminals according to law.”
His comments come a day after 44 people, including more than a dozen students, were charged with rioting after an unlawful protest Sunday spiraled into violence and brought parts of the city to a standstill. The youngest person charged is aged 16.
“Recently, there have been a series of violent incidents happening in Hong Kong,” said Chen in front of an audience that included the city’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam.
“The incidents have seriously violated the bottom line of ‘one country, two systems.’ This should not be tolerated and we express our strong condemnation,” said the PLA commander, referring to the framework under which the semi-autonomous city is governed.
The garrison marked the anniversary with the release of a video showing PLA soldiers storming a Hong Kong-style street, complete with traditional Chinese characters and a Hong Kong taxi.
In one scene, military police with riot shields and warning banners similar to those used by Hong Kong police in the recent protests are seen marching in unison and shooting tear gas. A soldier is shown shouting in Cantonese, the primary language spoken in Hong Kong: “All consequences are at your own risk.”
The video was posted on the social media accounts of the Chinese government-run tabloid, the Global Times, along with the caption: “A blunt warning to Hong Kong secessionists and their foreign backers?”
The comments from the military commander may heighten concerns among some protest groups that the Chinese government could use PLA troops to restore order in the city.
At a Chinese Defense Ministry briefing on July 24, spokesman Wu Qian responded to questions about a possible PLA deployment by telling journalists to read article 14 of the Hong Kong garrison law.
It states if the Hong Kong government requests PLA assistance “in maintenance of public order” then the garrison’s troops can enter the streets of the city.
Fears over PLA involvement
There are at least 6,000 PLA troops stationed at the garrison in northern Hong Kong, close to the border with mainland China.
Although Hong Kong is a Chinese city, the PLA troops are not involved in its every day security. Since its handover in 1997, Hong Kong has been governed under a separate set of laws allowing greater economic and personal freedoms for its citizens.
On Tuesday, a senior Trump administration official said that there were rumors of Chinese police massing along the Hong Kong border, but didn’t say if this was due to the protests or even whether the US government had confirmed it.
There has so far been no firm indication that the PLA is planning to move outside its garrison, or that Beijing has any desire to deploy troops to the city.
Analysts said that the Chinese government would be reluctant to deploy the PLA due to the potential economic and social instability that a military presence might spark. Hong Kong is a major global financial hub in which numerous major Chinese companies have important holdings.
But that hasn’t stopped number of pro-Beijing politicians in the city making it clear that it remains an active option.
Speaking to camera in Mandarin, rather than the usual Hong Kong Cantonese, lawmaker Junius Ho said if Hong Kong reaches an “uncontrollable state, we will deal with the situation.”
“In an emergency, if local police fail to maintain the order of Hong Kong, the PLA can intervene to bring back peace and stabilize the political situation in Hong Kong as per the law,” he said in the video.
In a letter to the Financial Times, former pro-Beijing Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung said that the PLA garrison in Hong Kong “is not meant to be token, ceremonial or symbolic.”
Leung was the city’s leader during the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement protests when huge numbers of pro-democracy protesters paralyzed the city by taking over entire streets.