HONG KONG • Satellite photos of what appear to be armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles belonging to China's paramilitary People's Armed Police parked in a sports complex in Shenzhen have been interpreted by some as a threat from Beijing to use increased force against pro-democracy protesters across the border in Hong Kong.
The pictures collected on Monday by Maxar's WorldView show 500 or more vehicles sitting on and around the football stadium at Shenzhen Bay Sports Centre, just across the harbour from the Asian financial hub that has been rocked by more than two months of near-daily street demonstrations.
Chinese state media said the exercises had been planned beforehand and were not directly related to the unrest in Hong Kong, although they came shortly after the central government in Beijing said the protests were beginning to show the "sprouts of terrorism".
Beijing has been apparently reluctant to send in police or army units from the mainland or to mobilise the People's Liberation Army (PLA) garrison in Hong Kong to quell the unrest.
China is seen to be mindful of the devastating effect that it would have on the territory's reputation as a safe and stable place to invest in, and also that it would be an indication of the Communist Party's failure to win over the hearts and minds of the city's 7.3 million residents, 22 years after the former British colony was handed over to Beijing.
It would also be a shocking reminder of the PLA's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations centred on Beijing's Tiananmen Square 30 years ago. The incident remains a taboo subject in China, but is memorialised with a massive rally and march each year in Hong Kong.
Yet, mainland China is believed to have already dispatched officers to fortify the ranks of the Hong Kong police, and to have possibly planted decoys among protesters to encourage more violent acts that could eventually turn ordinary Hong Kongers against the protest movement.
Such a change in sentiment does not yet appear to have happened despite rising violence surrounding the protests and the shutdown of the city's usually bustling international airport for two days after it was occupied by demonstrators.