It was a move seen by many to try to normalise Chinese troops being on Hong Kong’s streets.
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 fuelled 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-harbour tunnel closed. About 1,000 people turned out for an annual Gay Pride event in the centre 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.
Doing so, however, would incur international criticism and revive memories of the army’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Police advanced toward the protesters at Polytechnic with tear gas around 10:30 p.m. After a hiatus, police and protesters traded volleys of tear gas and gasoline bombs as the clash extended past midnight.
Earlier, there were scattered incidents of protesters arguing with people clearing roadways, and in one instance, throwing a gasoline bomb near City University of Hong Kong.