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Relax, there’s no need to panic about uniformed Chinese soldiers on Hong Kong streets

Yonden Lhatoo says it will be a long time before the city can stomach the idea of PLA soldiers in uniform on the streets, even if their conduct so far has been exemplary and all the paranoia about them has proven to be misplaced

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 August, 2018, 3:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 August, 2018, 3:03pm

When I first started as a rookie reporter in Hong Kong, I was assigned to the British garrison beat as it was drawing down in preparation for the city’s historic handover of sovereignty to China in 1997.

It was an interesting time as the public relations machine of the colonial military was in overdrive to ensure we were left behind with fond memories.

My friendly neighbourhood soldiers and their spin doctors went out of their way to both educate and entertain me. They took me along on land and sea operations to chase after illegal immigrants and intercept smugglers, flew me on a helicopter to a drug rehabilitation centre they were helping out with on a remote island accessible only by air, and let me climb into a visiting submarine, to name a few memorable excursions.

Like so many Hongkongers, I wasn’t sure what to expect when the British left and the first batch of People’s Liberation Army troops entered the city. I still vividly recall them standing ramrod stiff in the backs of their trucks, ignoring the pouring rain, as they swept into Hong Kong on the night of June 30.

A sense of trepidation hung in the air, thanks to all the media reports reminding everyone this was the same military force used against its own people to crush the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

All the misgivings, mistrust and paranoia proved to be completely misplaced as the PLA soldiers went on to display exemplary discipline in the city, maintaining such a low profile that they remain almost invisible to this day.

Now that Hong Kong has been a part of China for more than 20 years, the PLA garrison is mulling the possibility of relaxing its rigid rules and allowing troops to move around in public in uniform, in step with their mainland counterparts across the border.

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No legislation explicitly prohibits soldiers stationed here from wearing their uniforms on the streets, but they follow internal rules that ensure only officers venture outside the city’s 23 barracks. Even those privileged few are only allowed to turn up in uniform at military-specific events, while the rest are confined to barracks until the end of their tour of duty when they can go sightseeing.

The soldiers posted in Hong Kong are supposed to be the carefully chosen elite of China’s 2 million-strong military, which kind of explains why you don’t see them misbehaving on the streets – if you see them at all outside barracks.

You will never find them drinking and brawling in Wan Chai girlie bars like off-duty British soldiers in the old days, or like American sailors still making port calls here.

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These are the facts, but as relatively benign as the idea of PLA personnel in uniform seems, it will be a hugely sensitive matter in a city where anything involving the mainland and Beijing is met with deep suspicion by a very vocal swathe of society. It will feed right into the persecution-complex narrative that has become the mainstay of opposition groups.

As prominent think tank commentator Lau Siu-kai rightly pointed out: “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.”

It’s an unnecessary fire that the Hong Kong government will not want to start, agonising as it is right now over a far more pressing matter – when and how to fulfil its constitutional duty to enact national security legislation in the city. The last thing it needs is to give critics another excuse to cry wolf and cite further evidence of Hong Kong’s autonomy being systematically undermined.

The PLA in Hong Kong remains an isolated entity, except for its sold-out open days. The status quo is working well and everyone seems fine with it. Perhaps it’s best not to fix it if it ain’t broke.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post