August 29, 2019

China says tanks crossing border into Hong Kong are routine troop rotation
China sent fresh troops to Hong Kong Thursday as part of a "routine" garrison rotation, as the financial hub braced for a new round of violent protests after police refused permission for a mass rally at the weekend. Hong Kong has been mired in over three months of political crisis, with police and protesters engaging in increasingly violent clashes, prompting Beijing to ramp up its rhetoric and a public relations campaign against the anti-government movement. Chinese state media on Thursday broadcast a video of armoured personnel carriers and trucks driving across the Hong Kong border, describing it as a routine rotation of the garrison stationed in the semi-autonomous city. "The Hong Kong Garrison of the Chinese People's Liberation Army on Thursday morning completed the 22nd rotation since it began garrisoning Hong Kong in 1997," Xinhua news agency reported. "Before coming... we learned about the situation of Hong Kong," PLA officer Lieutenant-Colonel Yang Zheng, said in a slick PR video. "We've strengthened our training... to make sure we can fulfill our defence duties." Chinese state media on Thursday broadcast a video of armoured personnel carriers and trucks driving across the border The rotation came less than 24 hours after police denied permission for a new mass rally planned for Saturday that was expected to draw hundreds of thousands of people to the streets - the 13th consecutive week of protests. Police have previously denied permission for rallies to take place, but the orders have largely been ignored. In a letter to the rally organisers, the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), police said they feared some participants would commit "violent and destructive acts". Protesters have so far carried out "arson and large scale road blockades" and "used petrol bombs, steel balls, bricks, long spears, metal poles, as well as various self-made weapons to destroy public property", the letter said of previous rallies. Last Sunday police deployed water cannon for the first time and one officer fire a live-round warning shot from his sidearm to fend off radical protesters after a sanctioned rally erupted into some of the worst violence of the past three months. This Saturday's rally was called to mark five years since Beijing rejected political reforms in Hong Kong, a decision which sparked 79 days of political protests that became known as the Umbrella Movement. CHRF leader Jimmy Sham - who said he escaped unhurt after being set upon by masked men with a baseball bat and knife earlier Thursday - said the group would appeal against the police decision. "You can see the police's course of action is intensifying, and you can see (Hong Kong leader) Carrie Lam has in fact no intention to let Hong Kong return to peace," he said. Anti-government demonstrators have been urged to gather in the city centre and march to the Liaison Office, the department that represents China's central government in Hong Kong, but both aspects, which need permission from authorities, have been banned. The last rally organised by the CHRF on August 18 brought hundreds of thousands of people to the city's main public space. Despite being banned by police from leaving the area, they later marched peacefully through the streets in one of the first recent protest gatherings to end without major incident. The protests were originally ignited by the city's Beijing-backed government trying to pass a bill allowing extraditions to mainland China, but they have evolved into a wider call for greater democracy and an investigation into allegations of police brutality. The mainly young protesters say freedoms within the semi-autonomous city, unique within China, are being eroded by Beijing. The unrest has shown no sign of abating, with protesters locked in a stalemate with the Hong Kong government, which has refused to give in to their demands. More than 850 people have been arrested since June. China has been accused of using intimidation, economic muscle and propaganda - including against Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific as well as the city's metro operator - to constrict support for the protests. Observers estimate the Hong Kong garrison numbers between 8,000 and 10,000 troops split between bases in southern China and a network of former British army barracks in Hong Kong. Trucks full of white-gloved PLA soldiers rolled into Hong Kong within hours of the 1997 handover, raising questions about their role. They stage frequent drills but have seldom since been seen outside their bases. Reuters witnesses on Thursday saw significantly more activity in and around the PLA’s Shek Kong military base in the rural New Territories than has been apparent in recent months. China has denounced the protests and accused the United States and Britain of interfering in its affairs in Hong Kong. It has sent clear warnings that forceful intervention is possible. Hundreds of People’s Armed Police this month conducted exercises at a sports stadium in Shenzhen that borders Hong Kong a day after the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about their movements. The Chinese statement about rotating troops last year said the number of soldiers in Hong Kong "was maintained with no change". That was not in Thursday's announcement. Chinese defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang told a regular monthly news briefing that the timing of the troop rotation was similar to that of previous years to "meet the demands of defending Hong Kong". The garrison troops would fulfil their obligation of defending Hong Kong according to the law and would follow the orders of the Communist Party, he added. They had the confidence, determination and capability to "protect and defend Hong Kong's long-term prosperity and stability". He did not answer a question on whether troop levels in Hong Kong had risen as a result of the new troops arriving. Ren said that the People's Armed Police drills in Shenzhen were routine and that they conduct similar exercises every year. The Civil Human Rights Front, the organiser of previous mass protests in Hong Kong that they said attracted up to two million people, plans a rally from Hong Kong's Central business district to Beijing's main representative Liaison Office in the city on Saturday. The group's leader, Jimmy Sham, was attacked by two men armed with a knife and a baseball bat on Thursday, it said on its Facebook page. He was not hurt but a friend who stepped in to protect him suffered injuries to his left arm and was taken to hospital. Protesters targeted the Liaison Office, a potent symbol of Beijing's rule, in July, daubing anti-China slogans on its walls and signs. Police refused permission for the march on Thursday, but the group said it would appeal. The protest would mark five years since Beijing ruled out universal suffrage for Hong Kong and comes as Hong Kong faces its first recession in a decade, with all its pillars of growth under stress. Unrest escalated in mid-June over a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts. It has since evolved into calls for greater democracy under the "one country, two systems" formula under which Hong Kong has been run since 1997, guaranteeing freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland that include an independent judiciary. The protests have posed the biggest challenge for Communist Party rulers in Beijing since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012. Beijing is eager to quell the unrest before the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on Oct. 1, when Xi will oversee a large military parade in the Chinese capital. China also rotated troops in neighbouring Macau, a former Portuguese colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1999.
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