China’s military puts its best foot forward in charm offensive

Early fears over troop arrivals have faded after a show of discipline by elite members of the city garrison, but impressed Hongkongers find they still cannot join up

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 June, 2017, 8:03am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 June, 2017, 3:27pm

The Hong Kong garrison has tried to polish the People’s Liberation Army’s international image in the two decades since the handover, but observers warn that changes in the city’s political landscape have raised a less sympathetic spectre.

That’s because many older Hongkongers remain haunted by images of the PLA’s role in the bloody crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Beijing that started late on the night of June 3, 1989, during which an unconfirmed number of unarmed civilians died.

Such fears gradually faded after the first troops to serve in the PLA garrison entered the city at midnight on July 1, 1997, thanks to a comprehensive and deliberate plan to portray them as members of a “people’s army”.

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“As soon as we were recruited by the Hong Kong garrison, we were told that our top priority was to make a profound impression on the Hong Kong public,” Lin Guoquan, a former PLA soldier who served in the garrison in 2002, tells the South China Morning Post.

“As a grass-roots soldier, I didn’t have any chance to even glimpse the famous metropolis during my one year of service. Even when I suffered an occupational injury, I was directly sent to the Gun Club Hill Barracks hospital in Jordan for treatment, and later sent home.”

The garrison does not allow grass-roots soldiers to frequent the city’s bars, unlike British troops before the handover. Senior officers are allowed to venture into the city if their work requires it, but uniforms are not allowed to be worn on such occasions.

The only time PLA troops are seen in uniform is when they are invited to attend public events organised by the Hong Kong government or those related to military diplomacy, such as fleet visits. The garrison says it receives at least 10 foreign navy visits a year, from countries such as the United States, France and Australia.

Despite their deliberately “invisible presence”, shopkeepers in Sheung Wan or vendors operating near barracks may still recognise those in plain clothes by their crew cuts and military gaits, according to a former colonel who spent five years in the garrison.

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“I was recruited when I graduated from Peking University’s law faculty in 2001, because the garrison needed some legal talent, while other grass-roots soldiers are outstanding soldiers in both working and political performance,” he says, requesting anonymity because he is not authorised to talk to the media.

Those selected to serve in the garrison are all elite servicemen and women deemed to be of good moral character. Carefully chosen, they must be at least high school graduates and have spotless records.

The former colonel remembers getting gooseflesh when the vehicle he was travelling in with other new members of the garrison passed through the Man Kam To Control Point while crossing into Hong Kong.

“It was because our political education ordered all soldiers to raise their vigilance and prevent penetration by rivals because Hong Kong is a geostrategically important city crawling with Western spies,” he says.

Some soldiers and officers say they knew almost nothing about Hong Kong. “Our perceptions of it all came from listening to pop songs of the ‘four heavenly kings’ [Andy Lau Tak-wah, Jacky Cheung Hok-yau, Aaron Kwok Fu-shing and Leon Lai Ming] and Hong Kong-made films such as Young and Dangerous,” one soldier says.

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Antony Wong Dong, of the Macau-based International Military Association, says enhanced political education is aimed at brainwashing the soldiers into absolute loyalty to the Communist Party.

He says the role of the garrison includes fighting anti-Beijing forces, with the pro-independence sentiment that sprouted among some Hong Kong youngsters during the Occupy protests in 2014 and the Mong Kok riot in February last year being the main concern.

“Beijing found it’s illegal to send public security to Hong Kong to deal with cases like the Causeway Bay booksellers, but the role of the PLA garrison in Hong Kong has legal grounds,” he says.

Wong believes the garrison’s potential role as an anti-riot force, similar to the mainland’s armed police, has been cloaked in anti-terrorist drills since Occupy.

“Drills conducted by the garrison over the past four years have shown soldiers being equipped with more and more advanced anti-terrorist equipment,” he says.

In its annual report to the US Congress in November, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission said the garrison had been conducting increasingly complex military exercises since 2011. “Many of these exercises have occurred during particularly sensitive times in Hong Kong, causing pro-democracy advocates and other observers to assert that the Communist Party is using the PLA as a tool to apply pressure on Hong Kong citizens to fall in line with Beijing’s demands,” it said.

In July 2015, just days after China’s top legislature passed a sweeping and controversial national security law that stoked fears of greater limits on freedoms, Hong Kong media were allowed to witness a full-scale military exercise at the Castle Peak Firing Range for the first time.

In November last year, garrison personnel took part in their first joint military exercise overseas, teaming up with their Malaysian counterparts in a four-day drill.

The Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, and the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Garrisoning of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region both stipulate that troops stationed in Hong Kong shall not interfere in local affairs. The city’s government can only ask the central government for assistance from the garrison when necessary to maintain public order or for disaster relief operations.

As part of the PLA’s military modernisation pilot scheme, the Hong Kong garrison was given multi-unit, land, sea and air fighting capabilities, with a focus of combating terrorism. Its units are under the direct leadership of the PLA’s top brass – the Central Military Commission in Beijing – and under the administrative control of the Southern Theatre Command after the military overhaul initiated by President Xi Jinping, who chairs the commission.

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Described by Hong Kong media in the past as “an invisible and mysterious army”, the garrison now showcases new equipment, giving outsiders a window on the progress of PLA modernisation.

The gates to the 23 barracks scattered across Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories have been swung open 28 times over the past two decades, with more than 627,000 people taking the opportunity to pay a visit, according to the garrison’s information office.

The garrison has also hosted military summer camps for Hong Kong secondary school pupils since 2005, with nearly 2,800 teenagers having taken part.

The success of the open days and summer camps has inspired some members of Hong Kong’s Beijing-loyalist camp to suggest that youngsters from the city be allowed to enlist in the PLA, but General Zhang Shibo, a former garrison commander, says many legal hoops would need to be jumped through before that is possible.

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Wong and Hong Kong-based political commentator Johnny Lau Yui-siu say political considerations are the main reason Beijing is hesitant to allow Hong Kong youngsters to join the army.

Lau says there is no clamour in Hong Kong for the right to serve in the PLA, with such proposals merely a tactic by some politicians to curry favour with the mainland authorities. “Hongkongers should not forget that the soldiers of the garrison will suddenly turn hostile if Beijing orders them to help maintain social stability when it feels the political situation in Hong Kong is out of control,” he adds. “Following orders is a soldier’s bounden duty, especially when the PLA is a political tool of an arbitrary regime that holds ‘the party commands the gun’.”

To make sure garrison personnel are absolutely loyal to the party, everyone stationed in Hong Kong has to undergo intensive political education every week.

“Compared with troops on the mainland, our political education was more intense because the higher level should make sure our political thinking was on the right track,” the former colonel says.

To maintain their edge, regular officers and soldiers are shipped out after just one year, while senior officers are allowed to renew their two-year rotations.