A day after riot police in Hong Kong sprayed protesters with tear gas, beanbag rounds and rubber bullets on June 12, and the Carrie Lam administration intent on bulldozing a controversial extradition bill through parliament, a meeting was arranged between a top Chinese army commander and a Pentagon official in charge of Asian affairs.

It has been revealed that Chen Daoxiang, a People’s Liberation Army major general who commands the force’s garrison in Hong Kong, met with David Helvey, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs. During their meeting Chen assured Helvey that the PLA would not intervene in the running of the city, now a special administrative region under Beijing’s suzerainty.

Chen said that Hong Kong’s problems must be first and foremost dealt with by the city’s own government. Local officials invited Helvey to Chen’s office in the PLA headquarters on the waterfront at Central, in the Prince of Wales Building used by British forces during the colonial era.

The PLA’s barracks at Central is next door to the Hong Kong government headquarters, close to Harcourt Road in Admiralty, which was turned into a battlefield on June 12 when protesters clashed with police.

A file photo shows Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, right, with Chen Daoxiang, commander of the PLA’s garrison in the city. Photo: Handout
Black-clad demonstrators occupy the Harcourt Road bridge adjacent to the headquarters of the PLA’s Hong Kong garrison. Photo: Nile Bowie

Reuters said the PLA took the initiative to arrange the meeting “to send a signal” at a sensitive juncture, citing sources privy to the matter. The news agency noted the Pentagon confirmed the meeting but stressed it was a private one.

When Hong Kong citizens opposed to the extradition amendment bill mulled more rallies, the PLA also staged an air and naval drill in Victoria Harbor in a show of force at the end of last month.

On July 1, the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover, Chen and the PLA garrison’s political commissar Cai Yongzhong shared a toast with Chief Executive Carrie Lam under heavy police protection. Hours later, protesters rammed their way into the nearby Legislative Council complex and trashed the city’s parliamentary chamber.

Hong Kong’s constitutional document, the Basic Law, has a clause stipulating that the PLA’s garrison shall not interfere in the city’s local affairs – but its government can seek “assistance” from the garrison to maintain public order and for disaster relief.

Rumors began to swirl, in the thick of the June 12 confrontation between demonstrators and the police riot squad, that the Hong Kong government would seek reinforcement from the PLA, as a last resort to quell the “riot”.

But the sight of the PLA swinging open the gates of its barracks and deploying soldiers on the streets of the former British colony would have dealt a crippling blow to Hong Kong’s autonomous image and shattered Beijing’s pledges made when London handed the city back in 1997. To many, the PLA taking over Hong Kong will be tantamount to the end of the “one country, two systems” framework.

A number of US congressmen have also warned that they would move motions to amend the US-Hong Kong Policy Act and scrap all preferential treatment, if Beijing’s strangling of the city’s freedoms continues.

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