What is China’s People’s Liberation Army doing in Hong Kong?

Hong Kong (CNN) — Just yards from where thousands of pro-democracy supporters have been “occupying” the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district, stands an imposing gray building surrounded on all sides by a high wall — this is the Hong Kong garrison of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s armed forces.

The main gates of the base, known as the Prince of Wales barracks until London handed over the city to Beijing in 1997, are guarded by heavily armed sentries in green combat fatigues, who stand statue-like with impassive expressions 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

But despite the fact Hong Kong is a Chinese territory, the PLA garrison abides by local Hong Kong laws that emphasize the city’s considerable autonomy. In short they keep a low profile: the soldiers never come out onto the streets of the city, and there’s minimal interaction with the local population beyond the occasional open day.

While there is nothing to suggest this will happen, the possible intervention of the 6,000 PLA troops believed stationed here has been the “elephant in the room” for many, as we approach the first full week of pro-democracy demonstrations. For some protesters, memories are still fresh of 1989 and the brutal crackdown of student protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Non interference

Under the newly-created “Basic Law,” a constitutional agreement that came into effect on July 1, 1997, the PLA garrison — a mixture of personnel from PLA navy, ground and air forces — is responsible for defense and to maintain the sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of the State and the security of Hong Kong.

While Article 14 of the Basic Law stipulates that the garrison “shall not interfere in the local affairs of Hong Kong,” the Hong Kong government “may, when necessary, ask the Central Government (Beijing) for assistance from the garrison in the maintenance of public order and disaster relief.”

However, Beijing has been at pains to emphasize that the current situation in Hong Kong is the responsibility of the local authorities to address.

Since 1997, China’s military presence in Hong Kong has been largely anonymous with little revealed about its daily operations — with the exception of open days, when the city’s population is invited into the PLA’s barracks and given the opportunity to see its weaponry and meet soldiers.

However, there have been signs in recent months that the PLA has started to be more high profile, with regular visits to the city’s Victoria Harbor by warships. Recent accounts of armored vehicles rumbling between bases across the city has prompted many to speculate whether this is a deliberate ploy by Beijing to make its presence felt.

Full article: What is China’s People’s Liberation Army doing in Hong Kong? (CNN)

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