PLA garrison makes presence felt after years of living conspicuously

Most Hongkongers have ignored the city's PLA presence, but recent events have changed that

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 November, 2013, 6:28am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 November, 2013, 10:21am

They rumbled into Hong Kong on July 1, 1997. Military vehicles full of soldiers reclaiming a territory that hadn't been theirs for over a century. Since then, the People's Liberation Army has largely been a symbol of Hong Kong's return to China. But of late it appears to have been flexing its muscles in the city.

This year, live-fire exercises in Hong Kong have been broadcast on the state television network CCTV, and two officers from the garrison were promoted to the rank of general.

Many Hongkongers have long been wary of the army's presence, with the Tiananmen massacre in 1989 imprinted on the collective memory. But the concerns go both ways.

The military leadership worry that Hong Kong's capitalist charms could seduce the soldiers, and distract them from disciplined military life. An estimated 6,000 soldiers are based at the 18 barracks around Hong Kong. A typical soldier has 45 to 60 days of paid leave a year, and their spouses and children are able to visit the city for up to 60 days a year.

A typical day might look something like this: up at 6am; 20 minutes for breakfast, then training and drills or time at their work stations; lunch followed by a mandatory two-hour nap at 2pm; laundry and evening duties, before lights out at 10pm.

Officers are only stationed in Hong Kong for one year and are not allowed to mingle with the general public, aside from on special occasions.

They are rarely allowed out of the garrison and are confined to their dormitories for their single day off each week. However, newly arrived troops are given local tours and shopping trips as part of their welcome to Hong Kong, and they are given a similar send-off at the end of their posting.

After 16 years in the city, local fears of the garrison had become less pronounced. Soldiers in uniform are never seen on the streets, and media reports on military matters have become gradually less alarmist.

Politicians like Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee have even called for Hong Kong's youth to be accepted into the army. That day may be some time off; recruitment of Hongkongers would likely be in violation of the 50-year "no change" agreement signed with the British.

Still, the army's chief of general staff, General Chen Bingde , said he would welcome applicants from the territory, and the garrison does run a military training summer camp for Hong Kong youngsters each year.

The PLA emerged from their barracks in 2009 to take part in - and win - the Oxfam Trailwalker, although their initial participation caused some controversy as the garrison was said to be employing tactics not in the spirit of the event. The military team was accused of blocking other runners and had a support crew of more than 50 people helping them along the way.

The army toned down its presence in subsequent years and, after three more victories, stayed away altogether last year.

The PLA has run into fresh controversy, however, with a plan to rezone prime waterfront public space near its headquarters in Admiralty - famously shaped like an upturned gin bottle - for military use.