Should young Hongkongers join the PLA? Maybe it’s not a good idea at all

Yonden Lhatoo says a new push to allow the city’s youth to serve in China’s military is not without merit but is unlikely to get far because of enduring political sensitivities and suspicions in a polarised society

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 February, 2018, 4:55pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 February, 2018, 10:39pm

All revved up and no place to go, young man? Join the People’s Liberation Army.

The city’s largest pro-establishment party wants young Hongkongers to serve in the PLA as part of efforts to encourage people here to seize national opportunities on offer.

The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) plans to raise the proposal next month during the country’s top two annual political meetings in Beijing.

The idea is to allow Hong Kong students going to university on the mainland to enrol in China’s army – voluntarily, of course – with the promise of future career incentives such as subsidies and tuition fee waivers when they go back to school later.

The DAB floated the same idea three years ago, as did a senior PLA officer involved in the drafting of Hong Kong’s garrison law, who suggested universities and secondary schools in the city could offer classes on national defence and military training.

The DAB didn’t get very far with it back then, but this time it’s hoping for traction, given that national leaders are more concerned than ever before about the need to engage the city’s disaffected youth and instil a sense of patriotism in them.

I can already see eyes rolling or glazing over at the prospect, but joining the PLA is a genuinely attractive career path for millions across the border. Although military service is mandatory by mainland law, conscription exists in name only because there is no shortage of recruits.

China has been building an educated army for more than a decade now, and university students and graduates are regular recruits, given the many incentives during and after service if they postpone their education to sign up.

Promotion prospects, student loan write-offs, tuition subsidies, tax reductions when starting a business, preferential treatment in joining the civil service and state-owned enterprises – you get the drift.

Many youngsters would find a military career more rewarding than flipping burgers at McDonald’s or selling pay TV subscriptions on the street

Of course, Hong Kong is a whole different animal, as we all well know. But even here, there is genuine interest in the PLA, as seen whenever the local garrison opens its gates to the public.

I’ll wager many youngsters here, given the chance, would find a military career more rewarding than flipping burgers at McDonald’s or selling pay TV subscriptions on the street.

To a substantial demographic of Hongkongers, though, the tarnish of Tiananmen has yet to rub off the PLA, nearly three decades after the army was used to snuff out the pro-democracy movement of 1989.

Suspicions still run deep, as evidenced by “brainwashing” concerns over teenagers signing up with the PLA-backed Hong Kong Army Cadets Association, which allows them to play soldier at summer boot camps.

Maybe it’s just as well that the DAB’s proposal, genuinely well-meaning or sycophantic brownie point scoring, is unlikely to get more than lip service because of enduring political sensitivities.

All this has been prompted by eye-opening instances of youth frustrations boiling over, such as the Occupy protests of 2014 and the Mong Kok riot two years later.

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Imagine if all those angry young bucks had undergone military training and were weapons experts, courtesy of the PLA. They would be doing more than just digging up bricks from the pavement to chuck at police officers. Maybe not a good idea after all.

Oh, and by the way, being a soldier also requires absolute obedience and loyalty to the Communist Party. Good luck getting our youngsters to subscribe to that philosophy.

“Good metal doesn’t make nails; good men don’t make soldiers,” the old Chinese saying goes. The question for Hong Kong is: what are our young compatriots really made of?

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post.