Sat, Oct 05, 2019 - Page 9 News List

China quietly doubles troop size in Hong Kong to its largest ever

Learning from its response to protests in the past, China prepared new tactics in Hong Kong and elsewhere with a special paramilitary anti-riot force

By Greg Torode, James Pomfret and David Lague  /  REUTERS, HONG KONG

Illustration: Tania Chou

In August, Beijing moved thousands of troops across the border into Hong Kong. They came in on trucks and armored cars, by bus and by ship.

Xinhua news agency described the operation as a routine “rotation” of the low-key force China has kept in Hong Kong since the territory’s handover from Britain in 1997. No mention was made of the anti-government protests that have been shaking the metropolis since June.

It was a plausible report: China has maintained a steady level of force in the territory for years, regularly swapping troops in and out. Days earlier, according to an audio recording obtained by Reuters, embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) had told local businesspeople that China had “absolutely no plan” to order the army to put down the demonstrations.

A month on, Asian and Western envoys in Hong Kong say they are certain the late-August deployment was not a rotation at all, but a reinforcement. Seven envoys who spoke to Reuters said they did not detect any significant number of existing forces in Hong Kong returning to the mainland in the days before or after the announcement.

Three of the envoys said the contingent of Chinese military personnel in Hong Kong had more than doubled in size since the protests began. They estimated the number of military personnel is now between 10,000 and 12,000, up from 3,000 to 5,000 in the months before the reinforcement.

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

Significantly, five of the diplomats say, the build-up includes elements of the People’s Armed Police (PAP), a Chinese paramilitary anti-riot and internal security force under a separate command from the PLA. While Reuters was unable to determine the size of the PAP contingent, envoys say the bulk of the troops in Hong Kong are from the PLA.

PAP forces would be likely to spearhead any crackdown if Beijing decides to intervene, according to foreign envoys and security analysts. These paramilitary troops are specially trained in non-lethal tactics and methods of riot suppression and crowd control.

The envoys declined to say how exactly they determined that the recent troop movement was a reinforcement or how they arrived at their troop estimates. Reuters reporters visited the areas surrounding multiple PLA bases in Hong Kong and observed significantly increased movements by troops and armored vehicles at the facilities.

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

Last month, a spokeswoman for the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said China would “not sit idly by” if the situation in the territory continued to deteriorate and posed a threat to “the country’s sovereignty.”

Lam’s office had no comment. 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.”

After this report was published, Lawrence Li (李耀新), spokesman for the Hong Kong 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.”

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