Chinese troops play symbolic role in Hong Kong drama over democracy


Major General Tan Benhong, the commander of the People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong, was a picture of uniformed calm as he shared champagne toasts with Chinese officials on Wednesday at local celebrations marking China’s national day.

The streets surrounding the bash at the Hong Kong Convention Centre presented a starkly different scene as thousands of protesters escalated the most sustained push for full democracy since China took Hong Kong back from Britain in 1997.

As the protests enter their second week amid fresh signs of street violence, some demonstrators and ordinary Hong Kong citizens fear Tan’s troops could eventually be ordered to crush a movement unthinkable on the mainland.

Thorny political, legal and strategic realities make any such involvement of the PLA exceptionally difficult, however, and Hong Kong’s 27,000-strong police force is expected to remain in charge for the time being.

Government advisers and experts believe leaders in both Beijing and Hong Kong understand the immense political costs of ordering the PLA out of their barracks, ending at a stroke Hong Kong’s vaunted autonomy under the “one country-two systems” formula under which Britain agreed to hand over the Asian financial hub.

Foreign diplomats are monitoring developments closely, noting moves in recent months to upgrade PLA facilities in Hong Kong and unconfirmed reports of anti-riot drills being staged at both urban and rural bases.

The garrison comprises between 8,000 to 10,000 personnel, mostly infantry troops, spread between bases across the border in Shenzhen and in Hong Kong, envoys estimate. It includes a small naval and air-force attachment.

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