Hong Kong is not Macau – we don’t need PLA soldiers in the streets, thank you
I remember all that anxiety back in 1997 when it was time for the People’s Liberation Army to enter Hong Kong upon its return to Chinese rule.
The first batch swept into the city on the night of June 30, standing ramrod stiff in the backs of trucks in the pouring rain.
In the lead-up to their historic entrance there was no shortage of media mistrust and public paranoia over the impending arrival of the PLA, stemming from its role in the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989.
In the months and years that followed, all those misgivings turned out to be completely misplaced. As promised, PLA troops remained low profile and confined to their barracks.
The tarnish of Tiananmen was hard to rub off, and they didn’t have the sophisticated public relations machinery that the British Army used to project the friendly face of a military force that came across as both approachable and accountable.
But to their credit, PLA soldiers were models of discipline in Hong Kong, compared with their British predecessors based here and American counterparts making port calls in the city. I’m referring in particular to the loutish behaviour and alcohol-fuelled brawls when some of them hit the town for a little R and R every now and then.
It’s been more than two decades since the handover, and you still don’t see PLA soldiers on Hong Kong’s streets.
Which is why there are such mixed feelings about the recent, unprecedented deployment of PLA troops in neighbouring Macau to help with recovery efforts after the casino hub was devastated by the worst typhoon in more than half a century.
With their government ill-prepared and unable to cope, Macau citizens welcomed the help of those young men and women in uniform, armed with brooms and spades instead of guns, in the big clean-up.
The military stepping in to help is a regular and practical aspect of disaster relief across mainland China – and Western democracies, for that matter.
Many are asking now if this is a sign of things to come, and whether it’s only a matter of time before the PLA is similarly deployed in Hong Kong.
I would simply point out that Hong Kong is not Macau. Yes, for all purposes, both cities are special administrative regions of China and operate under the “one country, two systems” formula. But that’s about it.
Let’s face it, apart from its casino economy and vestiges of Portuguese colonial culture, Macau is just another Chinese city.
Its government operates on a level of authoritarianism and paranoia that would never fly in Hong Kong. That’s why it can arbitrarily detain our reporters and photographers when we send them across to cover news, declaring them “threats” to security, whatever that means.
In sharp contrast, you’ve seen how Hong Kong reacts to the slightest hint of “interference” from the mainland, whether it’s to do with setting up joint immigration facilities for a cross-border railway or enforcing respect for the national anthem through legislation.
Polarised politics aside, we are better prepared for natural disasters than Macau. Our government has not been concentrating on casinos at the cost of everything else. Our police force and emergency response departments are far superior.
Even in the event of anarchy on the streets, as seen during the World Trade Organisation riots of 2005 and the Occupy protests of 2014, our law enforcement agencies can deliver the right amount of restraint or resolve.
So, no, we don’t need PLA soldiers on our streets, no matter how noble the intention.
We are not Macau. We are not just another Chinese city. I’m proud to say that.
Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post