Chinese army free to send soldiers to perform volunteer work outside of barracks, says Hong Kong security minister
- Secretary for Security John Lee dismissed concerns of pan-democratic lawmakers but admitted the government had no record of PLA activities
- Hong Kong-based troops were recently deployed to help with country park clean-ups after Typhoon Mangkhut
The Chinese army’s Hong Kong garrison can freely decide on sending soldiers to perform volunteer service outside military sites, said the city’s security minister, and the local government has no record of how many such occasions this has occurred on.
Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu also played down worries raised by pan-democratic lawmakers and argued that the city should be thankful for the People’s Liberation Army’s help.
Lee addressed the issue on Wednesday in Legislative Council, as People Power lawmaker Raymond Chan Chi-chuen filed a question following up on the first incidence of soldiers helping with the clean-up of country parks after Typhoon Mangkhut battered the city in September.
Last month, more than 400 uniformed PLA soldiers were sent in batches to Hong Kong’s country parks to help remove trees felled during the storm. The government later said local officials did not request this help and that it was a voluntary community service.
Under Hong Kong’s Garrison Law, the PLA must not interfere in local affairs but troops can be called out to help with disaster relief if requested by the Hong Kong government. Such a request has never been made since the city returned to Chinese rule 21 years ago.
Referring to the country park clean-up, Lee said the law did not apply, as the army took part in the charitable activity on invitation. Yet, he said the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department was notified in advance about the arrangement by the organiser.
“It is not a requirement or a restriction under the Basic Law, Garrison Law and the laws in Hong Kong for the Hong Kong Garrison to seek the approval of the government … before conducting any charitable activities,” Lee said. The Basic Law is Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
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They had took part in charitable activities “from time to time in different districts”, including tree planting and blood donation events, visits to elderly homes and kindergartens, as well as sending the military band for performances upon invitation, he added.
He said the government had no figures documenting PLA soldiers performing volunteer service outside the barracks.
When asked by Chan whether local officials would urge the soldiers not to wear uniform during volunteer work so as not to be mistaken for being on duty, Lee said that was purely an internal decision of the garrison and he sees no need to change it.
“Wearing uniform when attending public events not only enhances soldiers’ sense of pride and commitment, it also enables greater public understanding of their duties,” Lee said.
Chan further pressed on whether the government could set up a notification mechanism so that citizens would not be alarmed if they saw soldiers walking around their neighbourhood.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching echoed this and asked Lee: “Has the government thrown its door wide open to allow PLA soldiers to walk around the city?”
Mo also asked whether the government should define what kind of “charitable organisations” could invite the PLA, and what kind of “charitable events” they may take part in.
But Lee said it was a matter of “common sense” on the definition of charitable events, and he did not think the general public shared such concerns.
“I am very disappointed … We should be thankful for the army’s silent endeavours over so many years,” Lee said.