There was an uneasy sense of calm on Sunday in Shenzhen, the Chinese city on the other side of the bay from Hong Kong where hundreds of troops from the People’s Armed Police [PAP] have been deployed in a show of force that the government in Beijing has called an anti-terrorism manoeuvre.
The troops, some of whom could be seen milling around the Shenzen Bay sports stadium where they are currently barracked, await word on whether they will be ordered to cross and quell what has been a mix of violent anti-government unrest and peaceful protest over the past 11 weeks in the former British colony.
The heavy rain squalls kept most of the Chinese military police indoors for the most part, but a few dozen of their trucks and armoured vehicles were sitting idle in the afternoon under the dark skies and rain.
To mainland China, the protesters have become a torment that the government and state-run media increasingly suggest must be ended, one way or another, and most here in Shenzhen – a former manufacturing centre that has now turned into China’s hi-tech metropolis – appear to be aligned with the Chinese government narrative, with little sympathy for protesters in Hong Kong.
After blocking most news of the protests over the first month and a half from its citizens behind the “Great Firewall”, China’s government has moved to take over the narrative in the past few weeks by equating protesters with terrorists and “hostile foreign forces” bent on undermining the country.
“I have one clear message to say to you,” said one angry Chinese man fresh from a football match with his friends. “I support China, and Hong Kong is part of China and this is China’s internal affair,” he said before moving off and refusing to give his name.
Others in the area generally had the same attitude, if slightly less strident.
“What they are doing is really reasonable,” Shenzhen resident Joe Song, 30, said of the staging by the PAP. “Any government has to prepare for situations like this. We hope for a peaceful outcome, but they still need to prepare.”
Song showed no hope for the protesters’ cause. “I think what they are doing to Hong Kong, they are fighting for nothing, they are fighting for no reason,” he said. “I used to go to Hong Kong a lot, but lately I’ve not been going. I don’t want to get hurt for some stupid ideas.”
Song said he did not expect the PAP to go in to Hong Kong unless violence continued to escalate, saying that the presence was more of a “show of force” than anything.
Some here show a bit more understanding, if not outright sympathy. “I understand the situation in Hong Kong, how young people are making their voice heard and expressing their hopes and demands,” Zhang Yibing, 35, said outside the centre.
“However, making their voice heard by damaging public facilities and hindering Hong Kong’s development is not going to lead them anywhere,” he added. “For now, I think the most important thing is to restore stability and move forward and make efforts to improve the status quo.”
Inside the stadium walls, military police could be heard talking and joking, briefly seen as doors opened for the lone trooper or two exiting to dispose of lunchtime garbage.
Below, near the parking area, 20 troopers at a time streamed out dressed in athletic shirts and shorts and returned a short time later laden with their full kit in large camouflage backpacks.
The process was repeated several times with each platoon exiting and retrieving their kit. Whether in preparation to enter Hong Kong in an attempt to put down the unrest, or simply to give them something to do on a rainy day is uncertain.
The Guardian was stopped twice by police and asked to delete photos taken of the trucks at close range from a balcony.
The police were generally amiable and on the second occasion, after the Guardian had been talking to several groups of people in the parking area, said they had to come check again since they’d received too many calls from people asking why they weren’t doing anything about the “spies in the sports centre”.
Additional reporting by Zhong Yunfan