The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s garrison in Hong Kong closely watches as protests churn on

The headquarters of the People's Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison stands illuminated among other buildings in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on Aug. 16. (Paul Yeung/Bloomberg News)

At first glance, the 28-story tower in Hong Kong doesn’t stand out too much from its neighbors in the Admiralty neighborhood, where local government buildings and luxury malls proliferate. Its unusual shape, narrow at the base, seems to be its most distinctive feature.

But look closer, and you’ll see that this is no office building. A red star at the top signals its true purpose: It is the headquarters of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong Garrison.

After months of protests in the semiautonomous territory calling for greater political freedoms, the mainland’s military presence came under renewed focus on Thursday, as Chinese state media announced that the People’s Liberation Army had conducted its 22nd troop rotation in the Hong Kong Garrison since 1997.

While Chinese officials have described the troop rotation as routine, it comes at a fraught time — only days before a planned protest calling for full democracy in the city, which has been a “special administrative region” of the Chinese state for more than two decades. Photographs and video showed armored personnel carriers moving across the border and soldiers disembarking from ships.

Why are Chinese troops in Hong Kong?

Sovereignty over Hong Kong, which was governed as a British colony for more than a century, was transferred to the Chinese state in 1997. After the handover, the city operated under a “one country, two systems” model, with its own separate governing and economic systems, but with foreign affairs and defense controlled by China’s central government.

Chinese troops first begun entering Hong Kong in April 1997, two months before the handover. They soon took over the Prince of Wales building, formerly the head office of the British army in Hong Kong, and turned it into the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Forces Hong Kong Building.

Under the Garrison Law enacted during the changeover, Hong Kong-stationed troops may be used to maintain public order if the city government requests it. This request has never been made, however, and the law states that the garrison “shall not interfere” in the local affairs of Hong Kong.

How strong is the Chinese military presence in Hong Kong?

Though Chinese troops are rarely seen on the streets of Hong Kong, they have a significant presence in the city. The PLA doesn’t release numbers, but outside groups have given estimates as high as 10,000, with troops stationed both inside Hong Kong and across the border in the city of Shenzhen.

Aside from the headquarters in Admiralty, the People’s Liberation Army has 19 sites in Hong Kong. One of the most noteworthy is the Shek Kong air base in the rural New Territories: Reuters cited witness accounts of significantly greater military activity at the base on Thursday night. Shek Kong houses a helicopter regiment; there is also a small naval base on Stonecutters Island.

Though these troops generally keep a low profile, they sometimes hold drills that are open to the public. At the start of August, the garrison released a video showing soldiers performing riot drills, a reminder of the protests rocking the city.

How has this changed with the troop rotation?

Troop rotations for the Hong Kong Garrison happen regularly, with the last one occurring in August 2018. Typically, the official announcements of the rotations include language suggesting that the number of troops and equipment remains unchanged. This one did not contain any language on numbers.