China’s military mulls ‘morale booster’ to let soldiers wear uniform in public in Hong Kong

Relaxation could help improve reputation of city’s garrison but also raise concerns about military overreach, analysts say

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 August, 2018, 8:32pm
UPDATED : Friday, 03 August, 2018, 2:27pm

The Hong Kong garrison of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is considering whether to relax rules to let soldiers stationed in the city wear their uniform in public, bringing them into line with personnel in mainland China, according to a source close to the garrison.

“There’s been no decision so far but many of the soldiers are hoping for such a change,” the source said, suggesting the move could boost the morale of troops wanting to show their commitment to the armed forces.

Observers said that could also mean expanding the jurisdiction of military police from within the barracks to the wider city, raising broader legal and political questions. Military police monitor the discipline of personnel in the armed forces and do not have authority over the general public.

While the country’s 2 million servicemen and women have been allowed to go uniformed in public on the mainland since new rules came into effect on May 1, expanding the policy to Hong Kong would be a much more significant step in a city that is not used to seeing PLA soldiers in uniform on the streets.

There is no law explicitly prohibiting military personnel from wearing their uniforms in Hong Kong, but internal rules allow only officers to venture outside the city’s 23 barracks, and even they can only turn up in uniform at military events.

The rules also confine all other soldiers to their barracks until near the end of their tours in the city, when they are allowed to go sightseeing.

The only other times PLA troops are allowed in the city is to help the Hong Kong authorities maintain public order or for disaster relief, under conditions defined by the Basic Law – the city’s mini-constitution – and the Garrison Law.

Soldiers stationed in Hong Kong have yet to receive that call but counterparts in neighbouring Macau were deployed on the streets for the first time last year to help clean up after a disastrous typhoon.

The garrison declined to comment on any possible relaxation of the rules, saying only that the PLA had “internal law enforcement to supervise and implement all related regulations” according to the Basic Law and the Garrison Law.

Hong Kong’s PLA garrison no longer just symbolic, top brass say

Professor Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of The Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a Beijing-backed think tank, said allowing garrison soldiers to go uniformed in public was a sensitive topic that required careful consideration, given the soaring tensions between Beijing and the city’s independence advocates.

“There is a risk that the uniform issue might be used by some radical activists and independence-leaning groups and be turned into a hot potato, igniting hostility and conflict between the public and the garrison,” Lau said.

He suggested the garrison should assess public opinion but also review restrictions that confined soldiers to their barracks for most of their time in the city.

“It’s necessary to lift the ban gradually and appropriately to let soldiers go out to engage with the public, but so far they still need to wear civilian clothes in today’s political atmosphere in Hong Kong,” Lau said.

He noted that before the handover, off-duty British soldiers could choose whether or not to wear their uniform in public.

A retired PLA colonel who spent five years at the Hong Kong garrison, said soldiers would welcome the change because wearing the uniform was an honour and it would encourage good behaviour among personnel, helping to raise the garrison’s reputation.

“Almost all the soldiers in the Hong Kong garrison are the elite of the 2 million PLA troops. They have been carefully chosen,” he said.

“Many of them expected their time in Hong Kong would be a special learning experience ... but they are very disappointed at being so isolated.”

‘PLA barracks are waste of resources and should be considered for Hong Kong’s land needs’

One officer at the garrison said he had never been able to even visit barracks in other districts despite being in the city for several years. He hoped the rules could be changed to allow soldiers to venture outside more often.

“It’s more than 20 years since the handover of Hong Kong. I hope new guidelines will allow us to wear our uniform to see Hong Kong and help Hong Kong people understand us more,” he said.

Allowing uniformed soldiers outside the garrison for non-official functions could mean broader powers for the PLA’s military police.

Zeng Zhiping, a military expert at the Nanchang Institute of Technology in eastern China’s Jiangxi province, said that letting uniformed troops interact with the public would help the garrison burnish its reputation, but it would also mean extending the reach of the military police beyond the PLA barracks.

“Military police have to monitor the discipline of officers and soldiers and so far they have all stayed inside their barracks. But in the future, they may need to go out if more soldiers do so,” Zeng said.