China's Xi inspects Hong Kong PLA garrison as protests gather steam

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By Greg Torode and Venus Wu
| HONG KONG

HONG KONG Chinese President Xi Jinping, visiting Hong Kong for the 20th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule, inspected more than 3,000 People’s Liberation Army troops on Friday, as pro-democracy campaigners geared up for protests.

His visit to the former British colony comes amid heightened tension between China and Hong Kong, where many people are concerned at what they perceive to be increasing interference by Beijing in the city’s affairs.

The battle for full democracy has been a defining issue for the city of 7.3 million. It has sown distrust between China and Hong Kong, polarized politics, hampered governance and stoked mass protests.

Xi’s visit to the Shek Kong barracks in a quiet and lush corner of Hong Kong came on the second day of his first trip as president to the financial hub ahead of Saturday’s anniversary.

Xi, who oversees the PLA in his role as head of the powerful Central Military Commission, repeatedly shouted, “Hello comrades!” and “Comrades, you are working hard!” into four microphones fixed atop his motorcade as martial music blared in the background.

The troops responded in unison: “Hail to you chief!” and “Serve the people!”

The presence of the PLA in the city has long been one of the most sensitive parts of the city’s reversion to Chinese rule, but the garrison, thought to number between 8,000 and 10,000, has kept a noticeably low-key presence.

Hong Kong’s large and well-equipped police force – dominated by Hong Kong recruits – remains responsible for routine domestic security and was protecting the streets surrounding the base on Friday.

Security has been tight ahead of the anniversary, with some 9,000 police reportedly deployed to maintain order. Protesters have been kept well away from Xi and his entourage, his hotel, and the venue for the handover day ceremony on Saturday.

Banners critical of China have been largely absent from the streets, though a rally on Saturday could draw tens of thousands of people in an annual demand for full democracy.

Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997, under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees wide-ranging freedoms and judicial independence unseen in mainland China.

More than 100,000 people took to the streets in 2014 for 79 days to protest against Beijing’s refusal to allow full democracy in the so-called “Occupy” civil disobedience movement.

Few expect anywhere near this scale of protest during Xi’s visit, but activists and civil society groups are planning a number of demonstrations. These include a pro-independence rally claiming that Hong Kong had now in effect become a repressed Chinese colony.

Other protests will demand the release of Chinese Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo, and justice for victims of the Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing in 1989, that could draw thousands.

Hong Kong authorities released 26 pro-democracy protesters on Friday who were arrested before Xi’s arrival.

“Democracy Now! Now!,” they shouted on being released, including young Occupy protest leader Joshua Wong.

After the military inspection, Xi visited a junior police training camp with Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying.

He observed children doing physical training and told them to develop their sense of responsibility so they can serve Hong Kong and “the motherland”.

(Additional reporting by Donny Kwok, Susan Gao, William Ho and Jasper Ng; Editing by James Pomfret)

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