HONGKONG'S reluctance to host large numbers of People's Liberation Army soldiers, particularly in the urban area has long been assumed by Britain in its negotiations with China. The poll we publish this morning shows that unease is undiminished. Some 57 per cent believe the Chinese garrison should number 3,000 or less. And almost two thirds of those questioned want the PLA to remain outside the urban area, whether or not in uniform. China is, understandably, keen to station troops in the Special Administrative Region after 1997. Like Britain, it believes it should have a military presence here to display sovereignty. However the message from Hongkong people is clear enough. Any Chinese presence should be at least as low profile and restricted as the British Garrison will be in the final years before the handover. Logically and logistically, there is no reason why China should not respect Hongkong people's wishes. Unlike Britain, which has always had to factor in the need to bring in reinforcements from the other side of the world, the PLA need maintain no more than a token presence in the territory. Troops could be stationed across the border and still be in Central in an hour should the need arise. Tasks once performed by the British army, such as border patrol work, are now in the hands of the Hongkong police. A minority of Hongkong people believe the PLA might have a role to play in this. But if China is keen to help, it could do so more usefullyfrom the other side of the border, preventing would-be illegal immigrants from getting across. There is evidence that China's political leaders understand the need to keep numbers down. On grounds of cost alone, it makes sense to station as few troops as possible in Hongkong permanently, even if the official establishment is set as high as 10,000 men. China has also hinted that soldiers will wear civilian clothes in urban areas. However, the danger is that the PLA itself may see matters differently. Discussions in the Joint Liaison Group at the moment are evidence of the PLA's desire to profit from any future military land-sales directly rather than hand property over to the civilian authorities for redevelopment as the British forces traditionally have done. Hongkong needs reassurance not only that the troops will be well behaved, but also that the military authorities will remain subject to civilian political control. A sensible agreement on procedures for disposal of defence land would go a long way to providing that assurance.