Chinese state media shared pictures of the heavily armoured vehicles and personnel carriers moving in a long convoy at the city’s border overnight. It is not clear whether they were coming or going.
The pictures also show a boat loaded with soldiers coming in to dock in the city.
The government claims it’s part of a routine patrol by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA).
However Dennis Kwok, member of Hong Kong pro-democracy movement the Civic Party said the latest public display is “anything but routine”.
He told local independent media today that the latest PLA troop movements in Hong Kong were deliberate posturing and an attempt to warn people.
“I don’t believe that, given the sensitive timing that we have right now, that this is anything routine,” he said.
The Hong Kong Garrison of the Chinese People's Liberation Army conducted the 22nd rotation of its members in the wee hours of Thursday since it began garrisoning Hong Kong in 1997 https://t.co/kJuYDo5dvr pic.twitter.com/ZweNneT4Fs
“I believe it’s a deliberate posture on the part of the PLA to tell, or warn, the Hong Kong people that they may be deployed.”
He warned that the use of troops would be the “end of Hong Kong” and begged the central government not to use military action.
Locals have been tweeting pictures of the convoy overnight and commenters from around the world are writing ominous messages. One Twitter user from the US simply wrote: “PLA tanks arrive in #hongkong. The blood is about to flow.”
Asian and Western diplomats in Hong Kong watching the movements had been expecting a routine rotation about this time and will be looking closely for any sign of increased numbers or unusual activity.
In a statement, the Chinese government wrote that the military display was an annual rotation that had taken place since 1997.
“Approved by the Central Military Commission, the move is normal routine annual rotation in line with the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Garrisoning the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which stipulates that ‘the Hong Kong Garrison shall practise a system of rotation of its members’,” it states.
In plain English, this means that some of the troops in Hong Kong have finished their posts and the late-night procession saw them replaced with fresh blood.
However, military expert from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Malcolm Davis told news.com.au we shouldn’t take the Chinese government’s statement at face value.
“This (what happened overnight) serves two purposes,” he said. “One is that it’s a handover of personnel. But the second is that it’s a clear act of intimidation.
“What they are saying here is: ‘We can do this and we can move quickly’.”
However, Australian National University China expert Dr Graeme Smith told news.com.au that, “for once, the Chinese government is telling the truth”.
“The handover last night was totally expected and it’s not taken anyone who follows this stuff closely by surprise at all,” he said.
He added that the timing seems interesting because of the flare-up in Hong Kong in recent weeks, but in fact, the handover takes place around this time of year, every year.
Last night’s parade comes just days after Hong Kong police drew their guns on protesters who attacked officers with sticks and rods.
Officers also brought out water cannon trucks for the first time on Sunday, in a worrying new escalation in the summer-long protests that have shaken the city’s government and residents.
The day’s main showdown took place on a major road in the outlying Tsuen Wan district after a protest march that ended in a nearby park.
While a large crowd rallied in the park, a group of hard-line protesters took over a main street, strewing bamboo poles on the pavement and lining up orange and white traffic barriers and cones to obstruct police.
After hoisting warning flags, police used tear gas to try to disperse the crowd.
Protesters responded by throwing bricks and gasoline bombs toward the police.
The result was a surreal scene of small fires and scattered paving bricks on the street between the two sides, rising clouds of tear gas and green and blue laser lights pointed by the protesters at the police.
The protesters eventually decided to abandon their position. Two water cannon trucks and a phalanx of police vehicles with flashing lights joined riot police on foot as they advanced up the street.
They met little resistance. Television footage showed a water cannon being fired once, but perhaps more as a test, as it didn’t appear to reach the retreating protesters.
Officers pulled their guns after protesters chased them down a street with sticks and rods, calling them “gangsters”.
Public broadcaster RTHK said one of its reporters saw a uniformed officer fire a shot into the sky. Some protesters said they were resorting to violence because the government had not responded to their peaceful demonstrations.
“The escalation you’re seeing now is just a product of our government’s indifference toward the people of Hong Kong,” said Rory Wong, who was at the clash after the march.
One neighbourhood resident, Dong Wong, complained about the tear gas.
“I live on the 15th floor and I can even smell it at home,” he said.
“I have four dogs, sneezing, sneezing all day … The protesters didn’t do anything, they just blocked the road to protect themselves.”
Protesters have taken to the semi-autonomous Chinese territory’s streets for more than two months.
Their demands include democratic elections and an investigation into police use of force to quell the protests.
A large group clashed with police on Saturday after a march in the Kowloon Bay neighbourhood, building barricades and setting fires in the streets.
Police said they arrested 29 people for various offences, including unlawful assembly, possession of offensive weapons and assaulting police officers.
The clashes, while not as prolonged or violent as some earlier ones, ended a brief lull in the violence.
The protests, which began in early June, had turned largely peaceful the previous weekend, after weeks of escalating violence.