HONG KONG — The Chinese military began sending a new group of troops into Hong Kong on Thursday, a move it described as a normal annual rotation of its garrison in the city but one that was being closely watched because of months of political turmoil.
“This rotation is an annual normal routine action approved by the Central Military Commission,” Lt. Col. Han You, a spokesman for the Hong Kong garrison of the People’s Liberation Army, said in a written statement.
The state-run Xinhua News Agency published photos of trucks carrying troops, armored personnel carriers and a ship entering the city under the cover of the early morning darkness.
The Chinese military has about 6,000 to 10,000 soldiers in Hong Kong at any given time. The exact number is not public. The troops have been based here since Hong Kong, a former British colony, returned to Chinese control in 1997.
After the rotation of troops last year, the military said the number of troops and equipment was the same as the previous year. Lt. Col. Han’s statement this year did not include such a declaration, fueling speculation that the military was expanding its strength in Hong Kong.
The city is in the midst of its biggest political crisis since the handover, with near daily protests against the government, including some that have turned violent, with demonstrators throwing stones and even firebombs at police. On Sunday an officer fired a warning shot when a group of protesters with sticks and metal poles charged a group of police officers.
The Chinese authorities have warned that the military could be called upon to respond to the protests. In recent weeks Chinese police and paramilitary troops have held drills in Shenzhen, a mainland city bordering Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong government has previously denied that it has called upon the military for assistance.