soldiers of fortune

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 March, 2008, 12:00am

Since 1841, the British garrison had been responsible for the overall defence of Hong Kong, but was found wanting when the Japanese invaded in 1941. Like Singapore, Hong Kong is too small to

be effectively defended from external attack for long.

The Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Corps was first raised in 1854, during the Crimean war, and was principally composed of Europeans, Eurasians and local Portuguese; few Chinese served in it until the late 1930s. Renamed the Royal Hong Kong Regiment (The Volunteers) in 1967, this unit was disbanded in 1995.

National service was instituted in Hong Kong in 1949. All able-bodied males, aged 18 and above, of British nationality, including all Chinese born in Hong Kong or other British territories who did not also have Chinese nationality, had to register. Those under 30 were assigned to the Hong Kong Volunteer Defence Force (HKVDF), the Hong Kong Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (HKRNVR) or the Air Arm. Men over 30 went into the Police Reserve while those past 40 joined the Civil Aid Service (CAS). Singapore followed Hong Kong's example and introduced national service in 1954. Military training remains compulsory for adult Singaporean males.

In 1969, the government in Britain announced the 'East of Suez' policy, which involved swift withdrawal from defence commitments in Singapore and Malaysia, and significant reductions in Hong Kong.

At that time, the colony paid 75 per cent of garrison costs from local revenue.

Like the British garrison from the 70s onwards, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) performs a largely symbolic role in modern Hong Kong. The PLA, however, costs the local taxpayer nothing; everything - even the food the soldiers eat - is supplied from Shenzhen. The PLA remains largely insulated from the Hong Kong population, who - partly due to post-Tiananmen fears - remain wary. Economics plays a role too; the monthly pay of a Chinese soldier would buy few of the pints once downed by British squaddies in Wan Chai.

The SAR government pays nothing for the presence of the PLA but it also receives nothing for having them here.

The British garrison routinely assisted the Hong Kong government, 'in aid of the civil power', during typhoons, floods and other natural disasters. The PLA, by contrast, regularly holds noisy parades inside Shek Kong camp - bothering nobody, admittedly - but beyond the occasional open day, contributes little to the wider Hong Kong community.