Some 400 soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army’s Hong Kong garri­son assisted in a rather belated clean-up along parts of the MacLehose Trail last weekend, nearly a month after Typhoon Mangkhut battered the city.

With several thousand young, fit men stationed in Hong Kong with little to do during peacetime (there is only so much basketball they can play in their off-hours), why not deploy them to help clear up typhoon debris?

After all, Hong Kong is part of China – like it or not. It is far better for the public to accept this reality, and make the best of it, than plaintively insist – as some stargazers continue to do – that this situation is not an unchangeable political fact. Part of that acceptance involves recog­nition that young men helping to clear fallen trees from rural trails – voluntarily or otherwise – are welcome extra pairs of hands, and not some lurking public enemy to be shunned and derided.

The usual suspects from what passes for Hong Kong’s pan-democratic camp were quick to condemn the visible military presence out of barracks – however helpful it may have been. And let’s face it, in Hong Kong’s steadily decaying, hopelessly polarised political climate, with no real leadership and widespread community suspicion about the motives behind any mainland initiative, this is an easy horse to flog.

As well as a worthwhile use of spare manpower resources, Military Aid to the Civil Community (MACC) activities in times of natural disaster are what the local garrison should have been doing for years. No doubt, many will see the assistance as yet another example of Hong Kong’s rapidly accelerating “mainlandisation”, and a further advance for what extreme localists regard as a foreign army of occupation. A more reasoned view sees the clean-up for what it was; a “hearts and minds” exercise undertaken with the expecta­tion of the welcome side benefit of positive publicity (instead of the abuse they actually got).

The “hearts and minds” slogan first gained currency during the Malayan Emergency, the Chinese Communist-fomented terrorist insur­gency that convulsed the Federation of Malaya from 1948 to 1960. Underpinning the term was the idea that the resident military presence – which, during the emergency, mostly comprised British and other Commonwealth forces – was there primarily to assist the local population.

Popularised by Field Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, the British high commissioner in Malaya whose dynamic leadership style was widely credited with eventually crushing the insurgency, “hearts and minds” has remained associated with this extra­ordinary man.

Should you encounter members of the local garrison – the short-haired, well-built, Mandarin-speaking young males in military issue, dark-green PT kit are readily identifiable – on a rural path somewhere, as I regularly do on the catchment road near my home in Shek Kong, smile and say hello to them.

In first for city, hundreds of PLA soldiers help with typhoon clean-up

Almost invariably, you’ll get an imme­diate smile and a wave back, and quite possibly – if one’s ethnicity makes this seem appropriate to them – “How are you?” or some other simple English phrase, usually accompanied by a grin and a giggle as they jog past. These lads mostly originate from remote rural areas where foreigners will always be a novelty, and as they don’t expect to be spoken to – especially by someone obviously different to themselves – they tend to respond spontaneously and in kind, when they are treated, as they should be, like fellow human beings.