Hong kong protests people's liberation army police violence
Protesters clash with police in Hong Kong, 2019 (Image: AP/Vincent Yu)

At the weekend, troops from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) appeared on the streets of Hong Kong for the first time since the beginning of the city’s anti-government protests, which have been marked by increasingly violent police treatment of protesters, students and — alarmingly — journalists.

And while it remains unclear if the last phase of the crisis is looming, the PLA presence seems like a portent. 

For now that presence is restrained: PLA troops appeared in “olive green t-shirts and orange basketball jerseys” to clear away debris and protest barricades abandoned near Hong Kong Baptist University. It was, according to Hong Kong media analyst David Bandurski, a publicity stunt.

The main action of the protests has shifted from city streets to a number of universities across the city, many unrecognisable due to graffiti, barricades, and damage from clashes between protesters and police.

Sunday night saw a pitched battle at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University. Petrol bombs and bricks were thrown — a police van was set alight as police fired tear gas at students and other protesters. Live rounds were threatened the next day as a siege ensued, which is still ongoing. Hundreds of students remain and police appear unwilling to storm the campus just yet. A few dozen students, including those injured, have escaped, while those left could face years in prison if arrested.

It’s always worth remembering that students were at the centre of pro-democracy protests in mainland China in 1988 and 1989, and it was students who saw PLA tanks invade central Beijing and Tiananmen Square.

No one can say whether the protests in Hong Kong — or the siege of the Polytechnic — will end the same way. Many see the PLA’s stunt as a warning from Beijing; others see it as an attempt to normalise the presence of the PLA in the city. But many observers believe Beijing, and Hong Kong police, would hold off any major intervention, at least until after Taiwan’s January elections.

While students — and those older radicals posing as students inside the universities — are certainly the main target of recent clashes, there’s another problem emerging from the ongoing protests: the police’s treatment of the media.

Journalists have been constantly and increasingly harassed and detained by police, and there has even been claims that police have threatened sexual assault.

Last weekend two journalists were arrested. Joey Kwok, a freelance photographer for Stand News, was handcuffed and dragged away by police for obstruction. Stand News condemned his arrest and demanded his immediate release, saying Kwok had been at a distance from police officers and did not obstruct their work.

Some journalists on the ground have noted that more aggressive local media organisations have been walking (or stepping over) the fine line between reporting on and supporting protesters, which has antagonised police.

This has led to some tensions between members of the Hong Kong Press Association, whose members tend to be younger, local journalists, and the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents Club  — whose membership, self-evidently, is skewed to expats.

These incidents have led correspondents to fear for the future of media freedom in Hong Kong. The city has long being able to report with independence on the Chinese mainland in both Chinese and English.

But threats to media freedom were well in train before the protests began in June — as have been threats to Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” agreement. Several media proprietors whose publications have been critical of Beijing have been the subject of attacks by gang-related thugs in recent years.

But perhaps the biggest fear of Hong Kong’s traditionally freewheeling media has been the threat of the introduction of state control that would resemble that in mainland China — for both domestic and foreign correspondents.

After allowing increasing loosening of media control in the decades after Tiananmen Square, the central government under Xi Jinping has completely tightened control over media, detaining and sacking journalists and editors from the more “free” outlets. A few key business publications such as Caixin and Caijing remain the only exceptions.

Foreign media representatives on the mainland have come under increased scrutiny, with the government now regularly refusing visas to journalists from organisations with established offices and also refusing the renewal of visas.

Hong Kong’s media now fears that a similarly strict system of controls will be imposed there, allowing the government to target “problematic” journalists.