PLA’s charm offensive in Hong Kong

Hebei native Meng Qingpeng has lived in Hong Kong for a whole year.

Yet he has never had dim sum in Wan Chai, shopped in Tsim Sha Tsui or taken a roller-coaster ride in Ocean Park.

"I've never actually seen Hong Kong," he tells me, a slight smile crossing his otherwise stoic mien.

The 23-year-old is one of the 6,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen from the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) garrison stationed in Hong Kong where it strenuously keeps a low profile.

For instance, the men (and some women) are not allowed to step outside their barracks - there are 18 across the city - into Hong Kong. Instead, during their leave, they cross the border into Shenzhen.

This helps maintain the PLA's "civilised" public image in the city that it protects - as its political commissar Zhang Rucheng put it during a rare press conference in 2007 to mark the garrison's 10th anniversary here.

It is a sensitive role. Under the one country two systems framework, Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy in running its own affairs except in the areas of foreign affairs and defence. The PLA takes care of the latter.

When some 500 PLA vehicles rolled into the city from Shenzhen at 10pm on June 30 1997, the image that flashed into the minds of many Hong Kongers was its role during the bloody Tiananmen crackdown just eight years ago.

Madam Wan Yee Lok, 42, an administrative executive, recalls her apprehension in 1997.

"When they first came, I was a bit worried. I remembered what they did in Tiananmen and I wasn't sure if the same thing wouldn't happen here."

Since then though, the PLA had been assidious in cultivating its image here. Over the past years, it prepared contingency plans during the Sars outbreak in 2003, and worked with the local police in 2005 when protests were held during the World Trade Organisation ministerial conference.

It also exercises iron discipline over its soldiers here. Over the past 16 years, there has been just one known incident of a PLA officer breaking the law.

In January 2006, a soldier was caught stealing a HK$35 (S$5.80) key chain while visiting Hong Kong Disneyland. He later pleaded guilty in court, was fined HK$1,000, and disciplined internally.

By contrast, there were 70 cases of British soldiers violating rules a year before 1997, noted Mr Zhang.

Tucked away thus, the PLA men and women presumably are also cocooned from Hong Kongers' political raucousness.

At the library in the Shek Kong barracks in the New Territories, there is a plethora of newspapers from across mainland China - the People's Daily, official organ of the Chinese Communist Party, Shenzhen's Southern Metropolis News and Daily Sunshine etc.

Absent from the rack though are Hong Kong's famously free-wheeling newspapers.

I asked an officer on duty why. He bristles a little and sidesteps the question by saying politely: "We know what is going on in Hong Kong; the soldiers get lectures on what's happening here."

The cloistering aside, the PLA conducts a charm offensive with an annual open house that offers Hong Kongers a sanitised peek at the lives of the military men and women.

For a few hours, members of the public who have obtained tickets can visit the barracks, play with Chinese-made assault rifles, and even get free check-ups by military medics. To date, 485,000 people have visited over the years.

This year, the event took place amid tension over the PLA's presence in the city even as anti-mainland sentiments spike. Pan-Democrat legislators are rowing about the re-zoning of a section of the newly-reclaimed Central waterfront promenade for the army's use, while pro-Beijing loyalists have raised the spectre of PLA tanks in the central business district should the proposed Occupy Central civil disobedience next year turn violent.

But that was hardly on the minds of many Hong Kongers who queued up outside the barracks under the searing sun on June 30, eve of the 16th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to Chinese rule from the British, to get in.

Inside, they were greeted by a banner saying: "Wishing Hong Kong a more beautiful tomorrow!"

Soothing muzak was piped in through hidden speakers nestled within the foliage. Smiling soldiers handed out orange gift bags with a small towel, a plastic fan and a bottle of water. Others patiently help excited kids and middle-aged housewives alike handle the weapons on display.

There were also visitors from the mainland; I shared a taxi from the train station with a family of three from Beijing visiting their 25-year-old son, who had been stationed in Hong Kong for two years.

While he has a law degree, he chose to enter the army "to serve the country", his mother shares proudly.

Like a typical Singaporean, I have food on my mind - did they bring along his favourite food items from home, I asked, pointing to the suitcase they were lugging along. No, he wanted magazines, replies his father.

But then, my concern was perhaps misplaced. At the barracks cafeteria, a multitude of cling-wrapped dishes was on display, showcasing the variety of food to allay any homesickness - noodles, steamed buns and dumplings for the northerners, rice for the southerners.

So does the charm offensive work?

Apparently so. Says Mdm Wan: "After so many years, it's been peaceful. And coming here, I feel sorry for the soldiers - they have to train like this all the time under this hot sun!"

For soldiers like Mr Meng, there is no issue about defending Hong Kong.

"It is part of our motherland, like other parts of mainland China," he says diplomatically.

But when will he get to sight-see in the city that he is defending?

"On the day I finish my tour of duty here!" he says with a broad grin of anticipation.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.