Soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army were deployed on the streets of Hong Kong over the weekend for the first time in five months of increasingly rancorous protests.
The troops were unarmed, dressed in plain clothes, and assigned primarily to clean up debris and roadblocks created by protesters. Chinese officials and state-run media insisted the people of Hong Kong welcomed the deployment and Western media reports to the contrary were hysterical over-reactions.
A group of about 50 PLA soldiers emerged from their barracks in Kowloon East on Saturday afternoon and began clearing debris from Renfrew Road. They said they were pitching in to join local police and firefighters to help clear the streets.
“We volunteered! Stopping violence and ending chaos is our responsibility,” one soldier told the South China Morning Post, which noted that “stopping violence and ending chaos” is a phrase employed by Chinese dictator Xi Jinping when he speaks about the Hong Kong protests.
After working for about an hour, the PLA soldiers “regrouped and marched back to their barracks, shouting patriotic slogans in unison,” according to the SCMP.
A group of opposition lawmakers soon issued a joint statement accusing the PLA of violating Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the code of laws established after the United Kingdom relinquished control of the city to Beijing, as well as the “Garrison Law,” which specifically forbids the Chinese military from interfering in local affairs and requires them to notify the Hong Kong government in advance of all activities. Defenders of the cleanup activity said these laws were not an issue because the soldiers volunteered, wore plain clothes, and carried no weapons.
Hong Kong laws also provide a procedure for the local government to request assistance from the military in emergency situations, but spokespeople for the government and PLA confirmed on Saturday that no such request was made. According to the PLA, the soldiers saw people cleaning up the streets and volunteered to help.
“There were some Hong Kong citizens clearing roadblocks near the PLA Hong Kong garrison. The soldiers from the PLA Hong Kong garrison joined these citizens in clearing these roadblocks and their efforts were welcomed by Hong Kong citizens,” a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman said on Monday.