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Fire breaks out during clashes between riot police and protesting students next to Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University on Sunday night. Photo: Winson Wong

PLA ‘committed to protecting’ Hong Kong as stand-off intensifies

  • Stopping violence and restoring order ‘most urgent task’ for the city, China’s defence ministry says
  • Chinese and US defence ministers discuss Hong Kong at Bangkok Asean meeting while clashes continue between police and radicals
The Chinese defence ministry has dismissed concerns about People’s Liberation Army soldiers in Hong Kong leaving their barracks on Saturday to help clear roadblocks and debris, saying the garrison was committed to protecting national security and the city’s stability.
Ministry spokesman Wu Qian made the comment after a meeting between Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper on the sidelines of an Asean defence ministers’ meeting in Bangkok, where they discussed the situation in Hong Kong.

It was the first time the two defence chiefs had spoken face-to-face about Hong Kong. They had discussed the ongoing unrest in the city in a phone conversation on November 5.

As hundreds of masked radicals and police officers remained locked in an intense stand-off on Monday, Wu said the Hong Kong public had welcomed the unexpected appearance of about 50 Chinese soldiers, unarmed and in plain clothes, for the first time in more than five months of unrest in the city.

“Stopping violence and restoring order is the most urgent task for Hong Kong,” Wu said.

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Beijing has blamed US politicians for supporting the violent protesters in Hong Kong through various means, such as the House of Representatives’ vote to approve the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

The legislation, which has yet to pass the Senate, requires the United States to sanction people who are responsible for the erosion of autonomy in Hong Kong.

PLA soldiers on the streets of Hong Kong on Saturday. Photo: Edmond So

Wu Xinbo, from the Centre for American studies at Fudan University, said Beijing believed the US was the mastermind behind the protests.

“More importantly, the diplomatic channel between Beijing and Washington is being obstructed, so this message is not just to Esper personally, but to the whole Trump administration,” he said.

He said that because of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s extreme hawkish stance against China, contact between Pompeo and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was limited.

The meeting between two the defence ministers was a rare chance to address this issue, which China sees as touching upon its sovereignty and national security.

The US side did not release details of the meeting, other than a tweet by Esper that he had discussed with Wei how the two nations could continue a relationship focused on “maintaining the international rule-based system”.

The meeting between Wei and Esper took place as the stand-off between masked radicals and police continued at the Polytechnic University campus in Hung Hom, which saw live rounds being fired by Hong Kong police. Despite repeated warnings to leave, radicals started a massive fire at the school entrance to fend off police, who briefly stormed the campus and detained a few of the protesters early on Monday morning.

Wu Qian said the PLA’s Hong Kong garrison was committed to obeying the Central Military Commission, and was capable of carrying out its mission as required by the Basic Law – the city’s mini-constitution – and the Garrison Law.

Critics and opposition lawmakers have condemned the Chinese soldiers’ clean-up activities on Saturday for breaching the laws which, together, restrict the PLA from interfering in local affairs. The garrison is also required to tell the Hong Kong government in advance of any military activities – such as training or manoeuvres – involving the public interest.

The laws also say the Hong Kong government can ask the PLA for help to keep public order or help with disaster relief. A government spokesman on Saturday night said the garrison had volunteered its services to the clean-up effort and it was not at their request.

“There were some Hong Kong citizens clearing roadblocks near the PLA Hong Kong garrison,” Wu Qian said, when asked about the brief deployment.

“The soldiers from the PLA Hong Kong garrison joined these citizens in clearing these roadblocks and their efforts were welcomed by Hong Kong citizens,” he added.

“The PLA Hong Kong garrison is determined, confident and capable of protecting national security, development interest, and the long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.”

In a related development, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China’s determination to safeguard its sovereignty and Hong Kong’s stability should not be underestimated.

“What’s happening in Hong Kong is not peaceful protests any more. It is a small group of violent radicals targeting ordinary citizens and disrupting the normal operation of Hong Kong society,” he said.

Additional reporting by Liu Zhen

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: PLA ‘committed to protecting stability’