Xinhua says troops were just shifted in a 'routine rotation'. Photo: Xinhua

Beijing has sent mixed messages about Hong Kong this week, as the city’s protracted rallies and clashes with police triggered by a China extradition bill show no sign of abating.

On Tuesday the bellicose Global Times, a sister paper of top party mouthpiece The People’s Daily that is always on message with Beijing’s line, toned down its rhetoric against protests in Hong Kong. The tabloid’s editorial titled “Some plain truths about Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy” called for reason and rationality amid the confusion and bluster of nationalism on the mainland.

In a nutshell, the paper reaffirmed that it was imperative to maintain Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy as the only feasible principle, since Beijing “did not have the political and jurisprudential resources to swallow the territory” and that Hong Kong ceasing to be a global financial center would not be in Beijing’s interest.

A Global Times front page in early June with a headline claiming “700,000 Hongkongers support extradition bill”.

The op-ed that appeared in the paper’s opinion page stressed Beijing’s resolve to press ahead with “one country, two systems” policy for Hong Kong and asserted that Beijing had no ulterior motives to scrap the deal or bring the city under mainland rule.

The article also went so far as to suggest that strident remarks against Hong Kong that always had a strong resonance among mainlanders were nothing but patriotic people “venting their anger”, and not a gauge of popular sentiment. “Isn’t it wonderful to have a ‘western city’ in China when many other places across the nation are on a spree building ‘western districts’?” the op-ed said, in a strangely patronizing tone.

The paper also had a word of advice to members of the city’s pro-democracy bloc, saying they must adjust their mindset, respect Beijing’s bottom-line and act as “constructive opposition.” It also appealed to Hongkongers not to subscribe to fear-mongering or conspiracy theories, as it is the mainland has the utmost goodwill for Hong Kong’s well-being.

The Global Times piece was a striking departure from the paper’s usually judgemental and bigoted commentaries that have denounced protesters in the former British enclave.

PLA pulls in fresh troops 

Hongkongers and observers have been baffled by the sudden change of tone by the state-run paper and wonder if it signals a tacit veto by Beijing on the use of Chinese troops or emergency laws to clamp down on continued unrest.

Then, news came out on Thursday that Beijing has started to ship in young troops in trucks and armored vehicles.

Xinhua put out a brief report at about 4am on Thursday morning that the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong had just begun its annual troop rotation and veterans would be relieved by fresh replacements. The official news agency said the rotation was an annual routine arrangement based on existing regulations governing the 6,000-strong Hong Kong garrison.

A group of trucks carrying soldiers and their gear passes a checkpoint on Hong Kong’s border with mainland China. Photo: China Central Television screen grab
Chinese troops ride military vehicles into Hong Kong early on Thursday allegedly in a ‘routine rotation’. Photo: Xinhua
Soldiers stand next to a row of military trucks at the PLA Hong Kong garrison’s Shek Kong Airfield, in the city’s New Territories close to Shenzhen. Photo: Reuters

Hong Kong residents who live in the northern New Territories also reported seeing army vehicles rolling down from the border with the mainland in the wee hours, while others saw the PLA vehicles on the move throughout the New Territories and army trucks going through the Eastern Harbour Tunnel between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. PLA seamen also made a pre-dawn landfall at a major base on Stonecutters Island in West Kowloon while helicopters from the Hong Kong garrison’s air force were also seen flying in during daylight.

In a separate report, Xinhua and the PLA Daily said the troops had undergone military and legal training “to grasp the situation in Hong Kong.”

With anti-Beijing ethos still widespread, many in the city see the PLA troop movements as deliberate posturing and an attempt to warn people, given Xinhua’s unusual practice to reveal the “routine rotation” this year before the deployment ended. In the past, reports were only made after moves were made.

The PLA seamen are seen onboard a frigate during a naval drill in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour in June. Beijing began to garrison its troops in the city since the 1997 handover. Photo: PLA Daily

Beijing insisted on stationing troops in Hong Kong after the handover for defense purpose, and they can be called in to quell unrest and restore order if requested by the city’s government and approved by Beijing, according to stipulations in the Basic Law, the city’s constitutional document. The PLA may also take over the city if the Chinese parliament declares a state of emergency. But the law also forbids the army from meddling in the running of Hong Kong and its troops garrisoned in the city are strictly confined to their barracks.

Meanwhile, in a subtle about-face, the Global Times also accused London of violating the Joint Declaration it signed with Beijing by “trying to interfere with Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity” since the handover.

“The Joint Declaration was only aimed at ensuring a smooth transition for Hong Kong’s handover in 1997, but [it] did not give any room for Britain to influence events or even support a series of extremist actions mounted by the opposition in the territory,” the article said.

It also said people like Chris Patten, the last colonial governor and a vocal critic of Beijing, should blush “for confusing right and wrong.”

“During the colonial era, all governors were sent by London. How does London have the audacity to preach that Beijing should give Hong Kong people more democracy and freedom?” the report said.

Read more:

PLA’s Hong Kong deployment plan revealed

US warships turned away as China masses troops near HK

Beijing accused of sneaking police into HK

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