15 years on, P.L.A. garrison still an enigma
It is almost 15 years since the first contingent of People's Liberation Army troops took their historic place in Hong Kong, and yesterday - as they held their 23rd open day since the handover - it was clear they remain an enigma to the Hong Kong public.
The military of any nation needs to keep as much operational detail as it can under wraps. But for the world's biggest fighting force, a combination of China's growing power and influence in the world and a historical antipathy towards the PLA among Hongkongers means its garrison in the city has been especially secretive and distant.
That remains so today even as memories of British rule fade.
The number of PLA troops in Hong Kong remains a mystery and, apart from open days and the occasional public event, the army practises a policy of isolation. Its soldiers have minimal interaction with the city they serve.
There have been small changes, but both the operation and the agenda of Hong Kong's PLA garrison had remained basically the same for the past 15 years, said PLA expert Antony Wong Dong, president of the Macau-based International Military Association. That would not change for the foreseeable future, he said.
Given Hong Kong's history, strategically important location and its status as an international metropolis, as well as political circumstances, large-scale military manoeuvres were impossible, so the army had planned ahead, Wong said.
'There was considerable foresight put into [the garrison's planning even before 1997], so you won't see big changes in the PLA,' he said. Weaponry had been upgraded to almost world-class standard, and soldiers' income had probably increased with inflation, but most things had stayed the same.
The PLA's agenda was to defend and protect Hong Kong when necessary. That could include intervening in the unlikely event the city's police were overwhelmed, Wong said.
According to the PLA expert, the policy of isolation is designed to address specific concerns: to avoid people recalling the sensitive issue of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, an event which deeply affected Hongkongers; to maintain the PLA's image; to avoid military secrets leaking out to the international community through Hong Kong; and to protect soldiers against the possibility of 'capitalist agendas polluting their minds'.
Yesterday, the garrison's forces were decked out in crisp, spotlessly clean uniforms. They smiled for the cameras and guided visitors around the battleships and helicopters.
Then came a show of their military prowess: battalions of soldiers marched in striking precision to patriotic tunes; the special operations force, dressed in black and camouflage kit, performed martial arts and fight demonstrations; soldiers in full battle gear ran through an obstacle course amid ringing gunshots.
'The PLA won't let it be anything but the best - Hong Kong is also a place for them to show to the world its power,' Wong said. The military still sends the 'cream of the crop' to Hong Kong, he added.
There are signs the city is gradually accepting the troops' presence.
'If there is the chance, I will definitely join the army,' said 20-year-old Wong Tsz-kin, who was helping out at yesterday's open day at the Stonecutters Island base. Wong had joined a 15-day training programme previously, which sparked his passion for the military.
However, Antony Wong said it was unlikely Hongkongers would be allowed to join the PLA.
'The [PLA] may have verbally said they welcome Hongkongers joining the army, but I can't see it actually happening,' he said. 'Deep down, China still has a deep-seated distrust of Hong Kong and Macau - they are not sure if we are completely 'handed over' to the mainland. China still treats Hong Kong and Macau people differently. Hong Kong and Macau are still listed as 'outside borders'.'
Physical stamina, mental conditioning and thinking, stark cultural differences and social traditions were also big hurdles for Hongkongers dreaming of qualifying to join up.
'Many PLA soldiers go through rigorous physical training at a young age, not to mention mental conditioning and training.
'I can't really imagine a Hongkonger - brought up with such a different mindset - being able to fit into the PLA's model,' he said. 'They cannot afford to have an individual-thinking soldier who would question authority in the army.'