The People's Liberation Army troops stationed in the Special Administrative Region have learned the hard way. They are fighting a new kind of war on hostile turf. Despite special training for the new assignment, the advance team of the PLA has suffered heavy casualties in opening encounters with the local media. The PLA is in many ways supreme in China. It has not been subject to any form of serious scrutiny, let alone criticism, by the mainland press. Military uniform alone commands respect and often brings with it privileges. These may take the form of priority and cheaper rates for tickets and other services. That is why soldiers across China often prefer to put on their uniforms, even when they are going out with their families on holidays. But many in Hong Kong, youngsters in particular, still associate the PLA with the bloody crackdown of the 1989 student pro-democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Chinese authorities have tried to improve public perceptions about the troops to be deployed to Hong Kong. Media tours of their training facilities were arranged and the message went out that the troops were chosen from an elite brigade. The soldiers have been given lessons in the Basic Law as well as other relevant statutes in the territory. They are required to have an elementary command of English and Cantonese. Steps were also taken to minimise the psychological impact on the local population. Soldiers are banned from wearing uniforms outside barracks while not on duty. They must move in small groups when they are allowed to tour the city. Nonetheless, these well-intentioned efforts have been nullified in the past two weeks by extensive coverage of incidents relating to the army's reputation. According to the Oriental Daily News, one of its rival publications conducted a practical joke at the PLA's expense. The Easy Finder, a sister publication of the Apple Daily and Next magazine, reportedly sent people into the streets posing as PLA officers in uniform. They were said to have asked passers-by to lend them money to help them get back to their barracks. This was supposedly done to gauge public attitudes towards the PLA. It remains to be seen how the publication will handle the material it gathered, possibly in its next issue. But if true, the joke is in poor taste and the way it was manufactured borders on the unethical. The results of a poor practical joke can hardly be used as a basis to judge the PLA. The incident, however, is enlightening in a different way. It has shown that some editors harbour a deep mistrust of the Chinese military. More important, they are ready to amplify and exploit it. The Easy Finder story comes in the wake of two other negative reports on the PLA. Major-General Zhou Borong , who is in charge of the advance troops, was accused of not observing customs procedures at the border checkpoint. The Chinese side, on the other hand, has filed a complaint against the Hong Kong Customs through the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group. Instead of nipping the dispute in the bud, Chen Zou'er of the Chinese team put the blame on the media for 'blowing the issue out of proportion'. In a briefing to legislators, the Hong Kong Government eventually dismissed the incident as a misunderstanding arising from language problems. However, the PLA had already suffered from an entire week of negative coverage. In the case of the Stanley Fort bus link, the PLA had to rely on a pro-Beijing political party to do the explaining. The public was first told that services in the area had to be cancelled because the PLA did not need any public transport. It was a rather insensitive and offensive justification to why civilians, especially schoolchildren there, also had to bear the inconvenience. It was Gary Cheng Kai-nam of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong, who helped clarify the situation. According to Mr Cheng, the PLA had not been properly informed of the implications for students. He said the PLA would be happy to retain existing services. But the damage was already done. Some of Beijing's advisers on Hong Kong issues have prepared plans of action to polish the public image of the PLA, ranging from voluntary beach cleaning to a ban on public smoking. The PLA is fighting an uphill battle in Hong Kong as far as public perception is concerned. Even the largest army in the world will need some friendly assistance from its civilian allies.