A general who led China’s anti-terrorism special forces in Xinjiang has been named as the new chief of the People’s Liberation Army’s garrison in Hong Kong, state media have reported.
The appointment comes as China toughens its rule in the international business hub, which underwent huge and sometimes violent street protests in 2019. Beijing imposed a controversial national security law in Hong Kong in 2020.
China’s official Xinhua news agency announced on Sunday that Maj Gen Peng Jingtang, the deputy chief of staff of the People’s Armed Police, had been appointed the Hong Kong garrison’s commander by President Xi Jinping.
Under the city’s mini-constitution, Hong Kong has its own police force but China has maintained military barracks there since the city’s 1997 handover, when colonial Britain’s forces left.
Peng’s appointment has been closely watched by analysts given his background in Xinjiang. According to the Global Times, Peng was previously also chief of staff of the Armed Police Force in the far-west Chinese region, where Washington says Beijing is committing genocide against Uyghurs and other Muslim minority groups. China denies human rights abuses.
Three years ago, Reference News – a branch of the official Xinhua news agency – reported that a new special force called Mountain Eagle Commando had been formed in Xinjiang “for the anti-terrorism needs in the region and across China”. Peng was quoted in the report as being the force’s leader.
“Every single bullet of ours is aiming at the battlefield,” he was quoted as saying, alongside revealing that the ammunition spent by Mountain Eagle in training sessions over a single year was three times what other units use.
China has blanketed western Xinjiang in a security crackdown in recent years after ethnic riots in the capital followed by attacks by Uyghur militants.
Dense deployment of paramilitary forces and massive surveillance systems were installed to stamp out what the ruling Communist party described as widespread Islamic extremism and separatism in the region.
Campaigners say at least a million Uyghurs have been detained by the Chinese authorities in internment camps. After initially denying the existence of the Xinjiang camps, China later defended them as vocational training centres aimed at reducing the appeal of Islamist extremism.
Peng is replacing his predecessor, Chen Daoxiang, who is reaching retirement age. Chen was appointed to the role in April 2019.
Under Chen’s leadership, Hong Kong’s PLA soldiers have become more visible – during the 2019 protests they cleared debris after a clash between demonstrators and police, as well as holding frequent drills simulating crowd control and anti-terrorism operations.
Last week, the Hong Kong garrison of the PLA conducted a high-profile drill to “demonstrate its confidence and determination to defend” the city, after Xi called on the military to “follow the evolution of technology, warfare and rivals closely”.
State media quoted Peng as saying that he would in his new appointment work with all members of the garrison to follow the command of the ruling Communist party and its general secretary, Xi, and resolutely defend national sovereignty and security interests.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse and Reuters