At least one Z-8K heavy transportation helicopter from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was spotted hovering above the clouds of tear gas and smoke from burning debris while the Hong Kong police’s riot squad and a mob of protesters battled on a footbridge leading to the main campus of the Chinese University of Hong Kong on Wednesday.
The PLA helicopter, modeled after the design of the France-made Super Frelon chopper, was seen flying in tandem with another one from the Hong Kong government’s flying service, and it reportedly buzzed CUHK’s sprawling campus, where a spate of clashes have brought the university’s operations to a standstill with classes suspended.
Other than hauling troops and materiel, the Z-8K is fitted with an infrared and night vision system.
There have also been posts online claiming nighttime overflights by Chinese helicopters above Whampoa and Hung Hom in Kowloon throughout the past month. The choppers have rarely been seen before as the PLA’s Hong Kong Garrison seldom flew aircraft after dusk.
The PLA is believed to be maintaining a fleet of 5-10 Z-8K choppers at its Shek Kong airbase in the New Territories, where a number of the Z-9 assault and utility helicopters are also based.
Hong Kong has been crippled by demonstrations for the fifth straight month, initially triggered by a now-pulled China extradition bill. Local youngsters’ frustration and angst toward the city’s government and Beijing has been burned out by the protracted rallies and clashes with police, and the battlefield has shifted from streets to university campuses this week.
Coincidentally, at least three local universities adjoin camps occupied by the PLA in Kowloon.
Students at the City University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Baptist University have been holding rallies on campuses and erecting barricades on major thoroughfares outside. They fear they are constantly being watched by a legion of CCTV cameras and troopers on patrol inside the nearby Osborn Barracks in Kowloon Tong, which was taken over by the PLA from the British army after Hong Kong’s handover in 1997.
They say they found soldiers in full anti-riot gear carrying rifles watching protesters outside on the street in recent days and were separated by only a thin ringfence.
Those at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hung Hom also think the PLA sentries in the neighboring Gun Club Hill Barracks could be recording their activities. Troops were seen using what appeared to be telescopes and cameras atop buildings.
In a rare incident in early October, nerves became frayed in Kowloon Tong when some protesters, in provocation, leveled laser pointers at troops on the top of a dormitory building in the Osborn Barracks. This prompted the troops to unfurl a yellow banner indicating possible prosecution, amid a pre-recorded warning in Cantonese to stop “illegal acts.” The stand-off ended when protesters eventually left.
In July, after protesters stormed the city’s Legislative Council complex and defaced the entrance of Beijing’s liaison office in the city, the PLA’s Hong Kong Garrison staged a big war-game featuring street battles and rounding up “terrorists” in an urban setting in Zhanjiang, in neighboring Guangdong province.
Back then there were also reports about mainland troops massing equipment in Shenzhen so the local garrison could draw on reinforcements instantly from across the border if needed.
Back in the early 1980s, Beijing was insistent on deploying the PLA in Hong Kong after 1997 for national defense and as the last resort to maintain law and order, when negotiating with London over the future of the territory.
For more than two decades since the handover the military presence has been hard to feel in the city as soldiers are strictly confined to their respective barracks and the military is barred from interfering in the running of the city under Beijing’s “one country, two systems” pledge.