PLA takes a uniform approach to discretion

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 June, 2012, 12:00am


Perhaps the most potent symbol of Beijing's presence in Hong Kong has been the People's Liberation Army - and the fact its members are rarely seen.

Besides open days and the earnest soldiers standing guard outside the barracks in Admiralty, the garrison goes about its business below the radar.

It is even unclear how big the garrison is. Military observers estimate troop strength might be 6,000, based on the regiments announced after the handover.

The spectre of tanks thundering along Queens Road Central never materialised, nor did fears soldiers would be standing guard throughout the city.

And there is no way you will see a group of PLA soldiers lurching around Wan Chai bars at 2 am. They are kept on a much tighter rein than their British brothers - amd then there's the fact they would be stretched to be able to buy a beer on their wages.

But you might never know if you do cross paths with a PLA member.

'We are not as mysterious as the public imagines because we do not wear a uniform when we are out in the public,' said a soldier, adding it was all part of their efforts to keep low-profile.

And they do get a few opportunities to check out what the city has to offer.

The garrison organised sightseeing tours for newcomers to The Peak, Ocean Park and other well-known scenic spots, the soldier said.

But just in case the troops get too comfortable in the city, regular officers and soldiers are shipped out after just one year, while senior officials are allowed to renew their two-year rotations.

The low-profile garrison has been described by the media as an invisible and mysterious army.

It's all part of a deliberate plan to create a sense of the 'people's army' among the locals.

So keen is the garrison to keep a low profile that its commander, Lieutenant-General Zhang Shibo told the South China Morning Post that all military drills at the Castle Peak firing range take place between midnight and 2am.

There have been some glimpses of the life of a PLA soldier. The gates to the barracks on Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and in the New Territories have been swung open 23 times, with about 470,000 people taking the opportunity to pay a visit.

The visits have inspired some youngsters to ask about signing up for service, but Zhang said there were many legal hoops to jump through before that became possible.

Lieutenant-General Wang Zengbo, the garrison's political commissar who overseas cultural and political affairs, encourages those youngsters to fulfil their military dreams by enrolling in the garrison's summer camps and other programmes.

Zhang said one of the garrison's missions was to promote the PLA, which it does through diplomatic encounters with visiting navies.

'Hong Kong is a beautiful city, with its unique cultural and social life attracting many foreign naval fleets every year, especially the US aircraft carrier group,' he said.

Zhang said that their US counterparts often invited them aboard for social visits and friendly military exchanges.

'I have visited [the US carrier groups] about six times and I also have been dropped on an aircraft carrier deck aboard their helicopters to dine and exchange views with them ... the feeling is fine,' he said.

Those special missions and frequent public appearances have given Zhang another bonus - he has lost five kilograms. This makes him look leaner and more robust than his official photo, which was released when he succeed Lieutenant-General Wang Jitang as garrison commander in 2008.

The commander now maintains his weight within 70 kilograms. 'As an army man, I should be self-disciplined. While commander of Hong Kong garrison, I should set a good example, otherwise, how can I order them to do drills?' Zhang laughed.

The garrison is not only a showcase for Hongkongers and military observers to understand the world's largest military - it also helps the military develop new directions for dealing with modernisation.

Zhang said the garrison was the first in the history of the PLA to include units of the land, navy and air forces.

'As a multi-unit fighting force, the Hong Kong garrison is also a pilot scheme because our annual joint exercises have provided a lot of practical experience to be used as a reference for other troops on the mainland,' Zhang.

'As a commander, I have benefitted as I have not only had to learn command skills for combined drills but also have got to study multi-unit combat, which will be a big help in the future.'

The garrison is perhaps primarily a symbol of China's resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong.

Its units are under the direct leadership of the PLA's top brass - the Central Military Commission in Beijing - as well as under administrative control of the Guangzhou Military Region, according to the Garrison Law.

The garrison is also a showcase for new equipment, giving outsiders a window on the PLA's modernisation progress.

Zhang said the army was continually being upgraded with the most advanced home-made weapons, including frigates equipped with air-to-air and ship-to-ship missiles, spy planes and transport helicopters to ensure it could deal with all aspects of its diverse role.

Antony Wong Dong, of the Macau-based International Military Association, said no one would doubt that the local garrison had polished the PLA's image. He said it was by far the most transparent PLA troop.

'There is no other PLA garrison that is more nimble or leaner or that has such advanced home-made weapons,' Wong said.

It was the only Chinese armed force that was allowed to have such close ties with the public and the international world.

'The garrison's high popularity among Hongkongers has faded people's fear left by the 1989 Tiananmen pro-democratic movement, when the PLA was sent to crush student demonstrations,' he said.

Wong said the garrison's regular open days had inspired troops on the mainland to open their barracks to the public - the basic requirement of a real modern army.


The garrison's barracks on Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and in the New Territories have been opened up to the public this many times