China flexes military muscle in Hong Kong during Xi Jinping visit

Observers say show of strength part of growing effort to intimidate members of independence movement.

The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, has presided over Hong Kong’s biggest military parade since the British handover in a tub-thumping show of strength that observers said was intended to intimidate members of the former colony’s nascent independence movement.

More than 3,100 troops gathered at the Shek Kong military base near Hong Kong’s border with mainland China on Friday morning to stage the review for Xi, who is on a rare tour of the city to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the the former British colony’s return to Chinese control on 1 July.

China’s official news agency, Xinhua, said more than 100 pieces of military hardware, including air defence missiles and helicopters, were put on show in what local media described as the largest such mobilisation since Hong Kong returned to Chinese control in 1997.

“Greetings, comrades!” China’s leader called out as he rode past the assembled troops on an open-top jeep. “Comrades, you’ve worked hard!”

“Greetings, chairman,” the armed soldiers bellowed back at their commander-in-chief as giant red China flags fluttered behind them. “Serve the people!”

Xinhua said the review was watched by about 4,000 spectators from all walks of life. According to the South China Morning Post, the spectacle included 20 squads of the People’s Liberation Army’s Hong Kong garrison, which has been stationed in the semi-autonomous city since the handover. The last such parade, in 2012, involved 15 squads.

The newspaper said the review had involved 60 armoured vehicles and 61 types of vehicles that specialised in surveillance, command, communications, defence, engineering, missile delivery, interference and field rescue and prevention. Twelve types of military helicopters were on show.

The South China Morning Post said the event was designed to show the PLA’s regional force was “no longer just a symbol of sovereignty but a combat-ready force capable of demonstrating China’s military might”.

Suzanne Pepper, a political observer whose blog chronicles Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy, said the show of strength was part of an increasingly hardline posture that China’s leaders appeared to be taking towards Hong Kong after a recent upsurge in support for the idea of independence or self-determination.

“The reason Beijing is so apoplectic now is because of independence advocacy. They are out of their minds because they are afraid this is going to catch on,” Pepper said.

“You have these young people [promoting independence and self determination, saying] … that if we can’t have what we thought we were going to have with genuine universal suffrage then … we’re going to do it our way [and] they are worried that if that catches on then they are going to have no end of trouble here, which maybe they won’t be able to contain so easily. So what they are trying to do is nip this in the bud before it goes any further.”

Pepper said the parade was “part of the scene of national strength they are building up”. “The implication is: ‘We will come out in the streets and put you down if we have to.’ But it is talk. It is big, blustering talk.”

Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy lawmaker who lives near the military base where the review was held, agreed that the display of military hardware was part of a growing effort to intimidate Beijing’s opponents.

Since the lead-up to 2014’s umbrella movement protests, “the Communist party has tried to create this feeling that the PLA will be deployed to crackdown on illegal political activities in Hong Kong,” Chu said. “The whole narrative now is anti-independence movement propaganda.”

However, Chu said activists were more worried about the hidden activities of China’s security services in Hong Kong than they were with Friday’s very public display of military strength.

“It is not the military that is really threatening Hong Kong people, it is other law enforcement agencies. This is a show of power [but] the bookseller incident told us what can really happen.”

Xi, who touched down in Hong Kong at Thursday lunchtime, will spend three days in the city for the anniversary celebrations.

Members of Hong Kong’s democracy movement plan to stage a mass protest on Saturday, the anniversary of the handover. But there are also many who will take to the streets to celebrate the city’s return to Chinese rule.

“This is a very happy time and we came here to celebrate with all our Hong Kong compatriots,” said Wang Daoli, 74, who travelled to Hong Kong from Dongguan, an industrial city in southern China.

Wearing a red cap and matching shirt, Wang was part of a group carrying a red banner that read: “We warmly welcome chairman Xi Jinping to visit Hong Kong”.

She said: “Hong Kong people should be happy to be a part of China, it much is better than before and we are all Chinese.

Yang Rui, 82, a retired police officer from Hunan, who was also in Hong Kong for the festivities, said: “Hong Kong is much better after the handover. In the 50s, Mao Zedong said China would surpass the UK – it took us more time but we achieved it.”

Beijing’s response to a surge in interest in the once taboo topic of independence has been swift and uncompromising. Two pro-independence lawmakers who Beijing denounced as “festering pustules” were ousted from office last year after using a swearing-in ceremony to challenge China’s authority over Hong Kong.

On the eve of Xi’s arrival in Hong Kong, China’s ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming, said such activism would not be tolerated. “Hong Kong is an integral part of China. China brooks no division,” he told Xinhua. “There is no way out for so-called Hong Kong independence.”