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China has doubled troop levels in Hong Kong, envoys estimate

China has doubled troop levels in Hong Kong, envoys estimate

Chinese President Xi Jinping inspects troops at the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong Garrison in an event marking the 20th anniversary of the city's handover from British to Chinese rule in Hong Kong on Jun 30, 2017. (File photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj)

HONG KONG: China has quietly more than doubled its deployment of mainland security forces in Hong Kong, according to foreign envoys and security analysts, in the most dramatic move yet by Beijing to prepare for a potential worsening of unrest in the global financial center.

Last month, Beijing moved thousands of troops across the border into this restive city, which has been wracked by protests since June. 

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The state news agency Xinhua described the operation as a routine “rotation” of the low-key force China has kept in Hong Kong since the city’s handover from Britain in 1997.

Troops are seen by a row of over a dozen army jeeps at the Shek Kong military base of People's Liberation Army (PLA) in Hong Kong on Aug 29, 2019. (Photo: Reuters)

A month on, seven Asian and Western envoys have told Reuters they are certain the late-August deployment was not a rotation at all, but a reinforcement. 

Three of the envoys said the number of Chinese military personnel in Hong Kong had more than doubled since the anti-government protests began in June. 

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They put the number of Chinese military personnel at 3,000 to 5,000 in the months before the reinforcement, and estimated it was now between 10,000 to 12,000.

As a result, the envoys believe, China has now assembled its largest-ever active force of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops and other anti-riot personnel and equipment in Hong Kong.

China's military on August 29 said fresh troops had arrived in Hong Kong as part of a routine "rotation", as the financial hub prepares for more political rallies against Beijing's tightening grip on the city. (Photo: AFP/CCTV)

Significantly, five of the diplomats say, the reinforcement includes elements of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), a mainland paramilitary anti-riot and internal security force under a separate command from the PLA. Until now, the presence of the PAP in Hong Kong has not been publicly known.

China’s Ministry of National Defense, the State Council Information Office, and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office did not respond to questions from Reuters.

Footage from China's state-run CCTV shows armoured personnel carriers and trucks carrying People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops for the Hong Kong Garrison arriving in Hong Kong during a routine rotation of personnel on Aug 29, 2019. (Photo: AFP/CCTV)

The office of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and the PLA garrison in Hong Kong also did not respond to questions. 

A Hong Kong police spokesperson told Reuters the police force was “capable of maintaining law and order and determined to restore public safety in Hong Kong.”

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After this report was published, Lawrence Li, spokesman for the Hong Kong government’s Security Bureau, issued a statement saying the PLA garrison is operating “in strict accordance” with the law. 

“Details of the Garrison’s rotation, including the number of its members involved, are defense matters,” he wrote, and the government “has no relevant information to provide.”

The protests in the city erupted in response to a move by Lam to propose a now-scrapped bill that would have allowed for the extradition of people from Hong Kong to China. 

The demonstrations, which at times have turned violent, pose the biggest popular challenge to President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

The PLA has maintained a garrison in Hong Kong since the city's return to China in 1997, but its troops generally keep a low profile and are rarely seen in uniform in public AFP/ISAAC LAWRENCE

The reinforcement in Hong Kong includes equipment tailor-made for the quelling of urban violence, including water cannon vehicles and trucks used to lay barbed wire barricades. Reuters reporters have tracked increased activity at many of the PLA’s 17 facilities across Hong Kong, Kowloon and rural New Territories, most of which were inherited under agreement with the departing British forces during the 1997 handover.

Some foreign analysts said China’s reinforced military presence was bigger than expected.

“They do seem to have an active contingency plan to deal with something like a total breakdown in order by the Hong Kong police,” said Alexander Neill, a Singapore-based security analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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Source: Reuters/ic

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