People's Liberation Army

PLA has 'security blackout' at historic military sites

Antiquities expert says army holding back information on 58 structures, even though much of it is public knowledge

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 December, 2012, 5:42am

Dozens of historic military structures controlled by the PLA remain ungraded for heritage value despite a four-year exercise, and the military has been withholding information due to "security concerns", a government antiquities expert says.

The PLA declined to say whether it would release the information - such as photos and maps - which is available in published literature on colonial military history.

The army sites were among 1,444 historic places listed in 2009 for heritage appraisal, the Antiquities and Monuments Office said on its website.

Now the Antiquities Advisory Board is close to finishing its grading work, with chairman Bernard Chan due to hold his last meeting on December 17.

But work remains outstanding on the military installations, along with 129 private buildings.

The office said it had not yet graded the PLA sites only because it was handling the 1,444 places batch by batch. It said the military did not object to the grading, but said: "Due to security concerns, it is not appropriate to release details of the PLA sites."

There are 58 installations earmarked for grading at three sites built by the British between 1863 and 1941: a naval base on Stonecutters Island; Stanley Fort; and the Gun Club Hill Barracks in Tsim Sha Tsui.

The antiquities office's website gives a two-page summary of most of the 1,444 listed sites, including their historical background, ownership and architectural merit, and photos and maps. But the 58 PLA structures are simply referred to as military facilities. Only the year of construction is given for them.

Siu Kwok-kin, who sits on an expert panel that recommends grades for the board to discuss, said the office did not give him any historical appraisal files about the sites, nor did he have a chance to visit them for grading purposes.

"Once, I suggested starting to grade the army sites, but I was told the work could not start yet. It's understandable they have security concerns," Siu recalled.

Board member Ko Tim-keung noted the security concerns, but said historical features of the sites were not a secret.

Both Siu and Ko said they had been to the sites before 1997. Ko, who had visited Stonecutters Island with the Royal Asiatic Society, said security arrangements were less strict at the time.

The society has issued articles in its journal, accessible online and in libraries, relating the history of Stanley Fort and the Gun Club Hill Barracks.

It published photos showing structures such as a colonial-style officers' mess, watch towers, gun emplacements and a church.

Stanley Fort and Stonecutters Island were used by the allies in the battle for Hong Kong during the second world war, Ko noted.

According to the law on the garrisoning of Hong Kong, the PLA and the Hong Kong government "shall jointly protect" the military facilities in the city.

Asked whether it knew whether the military sites were kept in good condition, the antiquities office said it had left all the maintenance work to the PLA alone.

The PLA garrison in Hong Kong said it had a duty to protect heritage sites. "Since the forces were garrisoned, they have followed the requirement of Hong Kong laws to protect the sites under strict standards, and have been in communication and co-ordination with the government departments on the issue," a spokesman wrote.

He did not respond to questions about whether the PLA had agreed to release the historical information, whether the heritage structures were still in use, or whether it would allow the antiquities office staff to enter the sites for inspection.

Eric Cheung Tat-ming, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said the case highlighted a cultural difference under the "one country, two systems" approach that needed to be ironed out.

"Security concern is legitimate, but is there a need to keep everything secret when such information is actually available in the public domain, and the barracks have an open day every year?" Cheung asked.

"On the mainland, many official records are considered confidential, but in Hong Kong, people care more about transparency. The chief executive may have a co-ordinating role to play, to find out what information can be released and what cannot."