SHENZHEN, China/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hundreds of China’s People’s Armed Police conducted exercises at a sports stadium in Shenzhen on Thursday, as the U.S. State Department expressed concern that they could be deployed across the border in Hong Kong to break up protests wracking the city.
But Western and Asian diplomats in Hong Kong said Beijing has little appetite for rolling the PAP or the People’s Liberation Army onto Hong Kong’s streets.
Men in fatigues could be seen in a stadium at the Shenzhen Bay Sports Centre, and shouts and whistles could be heard by a Reuters journalist on Thursday morning.
Later in the day, police carried out exercises in which they divided into two groups, one wearing black t-shirts similar to those worn by some protesters in Hong Kong.
The other group remained in uniform and picked up crowd-control shields and practised charging at the first group.
“This is the first time I’ve seen such a large-scale meeting,” said Yang Ying, a receptionist at a wellness centre inside the retail complex at the stadium.
“There have been exercises in the past, but usually they involve traffic police,” she added. “Our friends, social media, all say it’s because of Hong Kong.”
Ten weeks of increasingly violent confrontations between police and protesters have plunged the city into its worst crisis since it reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
The protests represent one of the biggest challenges for Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
On Wednesday the U.S. State Department said it was deeply concerned about reports that Chinese police forces were gathering near the border with Hong Kong and urged the city’s government to respect freedom of speech.
In Shenzhen, paramilitary police marched in and out of the stadium near a retail complex where shoppers milled about.
The stadium parking lot was filled with more than 100 dark-painted paramilitary vehicles, including troop trucks, armoured personnel carriers, buses and jeeps. At least three were armoured front-end loaders, and two vehicles carried water cannons.
A policeman patrolling the area told Reuters journalists the paramilitary police were guarding a basketball tournament.
Chinese state media have made several mentions of exercises in Shenzhen.
The Global Times, a nationalistic tabloid run by the ruling Communist Party’s official People’s Daily, published a slick video this week showing columns of trucks and armoured personnel carriers rolling through the city.
The paper said the vehicles belonged to the People’s Armed Police and had gathered for “apparent-large scale exercises.” Its editor, Hu Xijin, described it on Twitter as “a clear warning to rioters in Hong Kong.”
The Communist Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper said on the social media platform Weibo that the force handles incidents that include riots and terrorist attacks.
“There is usually PAP in Shenzhen, but this time it appears to be directed against Hong Kong,” said a taxi driver, who gave his surname as Wang. “Usually they wouldn’t hold such a big exercise.”
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