HONG KONG, (AFP): 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.”
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.
– Escalating violence –
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.
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