HONG KONG—China rotated troops in its People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong on Aug. 29, days before protesters planned to hold a march calling for full democracy for the Chinese-ruled city after three months of sometimes violent demonstrations.
Chinese state media described the troop movement in the early hours as routine. Troops were also rotated in neighboring Macau, a former Portuguese colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1999.
But the timing is likely to hit a few nerves in Hong Kong, which was returned to China in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” agreement.
The military had completed a routine troop rotation of air, land, and maritime forces, Xinhua said. Along with the People’s Daily, it released pictures and footage of armored personnel carriers moving in convoy in Hong Kong before dawn, their lights flashing.
Observers estimate the Hong Kong garrison numbers between 8,000 and 10,000 troops split between bases in southern China and a network of former British army barracks in Hong Kong.
Trucks full of white-gloved PLA soldiers rolled into Hong Kong within hours of the 1997 handover, raising questions about their role. They stage frequent drills but have seldom since been seen outside their bases.
“The Hong Kong Garrison of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army conducted the 22nd rotation of its members in the wee hours of Thursday since it began garrisoning Hong Kong in 1997,” the news agency said.
“Approved by the Central Military Commission, the move is normal routine annual rotation in line with the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Garrisoning the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which stipulates that ‘the Hong Kong Garrison shall practice a system of rotation of its members.'”
China has denounced the mass protests in Hong Kong and accused the United States and Britain of “interfering in its internal affairs.” It has sent warnings that forceful intervention is possible.
Hundreds of People’s Armed Police this month conducted exercises at a sports stadium in Shenzhen that borders Hong Kong a day after the U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about their movements.
More Protests This Weekend
The Civil Human Rights Front, the organizer of previous mass protests in Hong Kong that they said attracted up to two million people, plans a rally from Hong Kong’s Central business district to Beijing’s main representative Liaison Office in the city on Saturday.
But police refused permission for the march on Thursday. The group has said it will appeal.
The protest will mark five years since Hongkongers called for universal suffrage during the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
Unrest escalated in June over a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial in the rule-by-law Communist Party-controlled courts.
It has since evolved into calls for greater democracy under the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong has been run since 1997, guaranteeing freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland that include an independent judiciary.
The protests have been likened to the student democracy movement that led to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1987.
Epoch Times staff contributed to this report.