Chinese troops join Hong Kong cleanup as protesters retreat

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Protesters stand near stacks of instant noodles in a canteen at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong, Friday, Nov. 15, 2019. Protesters who have barricaded themselves in a Hong Kong university partially cleared a road they were blocking and demanded that the government commit to holding local elections on Nov. 24. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

HONG KONG – Chinese troops came out of the barracks in Hong Kong on Saturday — not to quell protests but to help clean up.

It was a rare public appearance by the People’s Liberation Army on the streets of the semi-autonomous territory, where the local government’s inability to end more than five months of often violent protest has fueled speculation that Beijing could deploy its troops.

The Hong Kong government said that it had not requested the military’s assistance in the cleanup, describing it as a voluntary community activity.

Running in formation with brooms instead of rifles, they chanted in military cadence before joining street cleaners removing debris near Hong Kong Baptist University, where police fired tear gas at protesters earlier this week.

Most anti-government protesters left Hong Kong’s universities after occupying them for about a week. Police were facing off late Saturday night with a group that remained in and around Hong Kong Polytechnic University in an apparent attempt to flush them out.

For a city now accustomed to fierce weekend clashes between police and protesters, Hong Kong had a relatively quiet Saturday. Small contingents of protesters harassed some of those cleaning up, and those at Polytechnic kept a major cross-harbor tunnel closed. About 1,000 people turned out for an annual Gay Pride event in the center of the city.

Dozens of Chinese troops, dressed in black shorts and olive drab T-shirts, came out from a nearby barracks to pick up paving stones, rocks and other obstacles that had cluttered the street and prevented traffic from flowing. Hong Kong riot police kept watch from nearby streets.

China, which maintains a garrison of about 10,000 soldiers in Hong Kong, publicly noted several times earlier during the protests that it could deploy them, though technically it would have to be requested by Hong Kong’s government.