Hello Hong Kong. China's People's Liberation Army turns on the charm with weekend shows

People's Liberation Army soldiers participate in a flag raising ceremony during an open day at the PLA navy base in Hong Kong, on July 8, 2017.
People's Liberation Army soldiers participate in a flag raising ceremony during an open day at the PLA navy base in Hong Kong, on July 8, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - From 700 sailors spelling out "Hello Hong Kong" on the deck to youthful soldiers singing about iPads and smart phones, China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) used the first port call in Hong Kong by its aircraft carrier to turn on the charm over the weekend.

The PLA opted for a message of unity in a weekend slate of public events for the Liaoning battle group. The approach comes amid scepticism in Hong Kong about China adhering to the "one country two systems" arrangement that has overseen its governance for 20 years, and after a visiting President Xi Jinping recently warned challenges to China's rule would not be tolerated.

"We are the post-1990 generation and we are just like you," rapped a troop of uniformed soldiers in a show dedicated to celebrating the 20th anniversary of Britain's return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule.

"Yet, that cannot define who we are: we've decided to dedicate ourselves to defending this great country, and let sweat and hard training polish our shining youth."

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The Liaoning  aircraft carrier's visit coincided with the local PLA garrison's annual open day. The focus on a united identity shows Beijing is seeking to limit concern about the creep of Chinese influence - even as it warns independence movements will not be tolerated.

Still, some lawmakers and pro-democracy activists say the balance has already tilted too far towards China, aided by Hong Kong's declining economic clout as an overall proportion of the country's economy.

"I don't see how little attempts to show so-called friendliness are going to do very much," said Mr Kevin Yam, a convener of the Progressive Lawyers Group.

"The ground had shifted so much over the past five years under CY Leung that it is going to be very difficult to regain any trust," he said, referring to Mr Leung Chun Ying, who was replaced as Hong Kong's chief executive on July 1 by Ms Carrie Lam.

PLA Acrobatics In a show titled "Guardian of the Fragrant River" - a poetic reference to Hong Kong harbour - the PLA's performance troop was the highlight of the local open day.

Military actors portrayed the men and women of China's armed forces in a benevolent light: a few slapstick comedy routines, some spectacular acrobatics and a Broadway-style dance routine with 15 PLA women singing about how serving Hong Kong gave their lives meaning.

It was a contrast to a politically laden performance three years ago titled "Towards the Dream" that depicted the story of China's humiliation, starting in the 1840s, at the hands of European, then Japanese invaders, with the rest of the show devoted to the communist struggle and China's economic boom.

In a July 1 speech, Mr Xi exhorted local people to identify with China, to take advantage of economic and development opportunities offered by the city's proximity to the mainland and embrace institutions like the PLA.

"When our country does well, Hong Kong will do even better," he said.

"It feels awesome be part of a mighty country," Harry Wong, a 16 year-old secondary school student said while taking photos on the deck of the Yinchuan, a guided-missile destroyer commissioned last year and equipped with anti-stealth radars and anti-ship cruise missiles.

"It makes me feel our country is very powerful."

The PLA charm offensive came a week after thousands of police officers were deployed to keep protesters far away from Mr Xi during a visit that culminated in the inauguration of Ms Lam.

Ms Lam too has been talking unity, vowing in a July 5 speech to improve communication with lawmaker to break years of political deadlock.

Mr Leung's five-year term was racked with division over perceptions that Beijing was encroaching on the high degree of autonomy promised Hong Kong in its charter.

China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, arrived last Friday (July 7) for a five-day visit. "Hello Hong Kong," read the formation of sailors as part of an arrival ceremony before Ms Lam and a few hundred of the city's elite.

Still, some observers said the tone of the Liaoning's port call was mixed.

"The visit has multiple messages I think," said a man who only gave his last name as Ma, as he took photos of the aircraft carrier from a pier on Hong Kong island.

"There is an intimidating message to those radical democrats, a strong signal of national prowess, and also a reminder the PLA has been here since the Hong Kong handover."

There are about 6,000 soldiers based in 18 or so barracks around Hong Kong and the PLA has held regular open days since the handover. Unlike visiting American sailors, who have at times caroused in the Wan Chai bar district, Chinese troops are mostly confined to barracks.

On board the Yinchuan, locals waited to have photographs taken with a tall, fit and obliging PLA Navy officer.

"The PLA soldiers are so cool and handsome," said Sherry Lee, 15. "I really like them a lot, and my dad and little sister like them too. I hope they can come back and visit often."