PLA guards of honor are seen in a parade marking the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover on July 1, 2017. Photo: China Central Television screen grab
PLA guards of honor are seen in a parade marking the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover on July 1, 2017. Photo: China Central Television screen grab

The People’s Liberation Army is said to be weighing a proposal to rip up guidelines to stay low-key and instead allow its troops stationed across a dozen of barracks in Hong Kong to be seen not just during camp open days but also in the streets of the former British colony in their PLA uniforms.

It has been reported that the force’s garrison in Hong Kong is considering whether to let soldiers wear their uniforms in public, as opposed to the current rules that mandate all personnel to be in civvies on occasions when they step outside their barracks, to avoid “evoking misinterpretation” when they rub shoulders with members of the Hong Kong public who are still not enamored with having Chinese troops in their streets.

PLA troops descended upon Hong Kong after it was handed back to China by the UK in 1997, and the size and armor of the new garrison in the special administrative region have become more than what is needed for as a symbol of Beijing’s restored sovereignty: Headcount has swelled to more than 6,000 soldiers over the years, along with more frequent drills and exercises held throughout the city.

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PLA troops carry the national flag and the force’s own flag during a camp open day in Hong Kong. Photos: Xinhua

“There’s been no decision so far [about allowing soldiers to go outside in their uniforms] but many are hoping for such a change,” the South China Morning Post quoted a source as saying, who added that wearing the uniform outside camps would be an honor and encourage good behavior.

But Hong Kong residents and members of the democratic camp are wondering if Beijing is going to abandon all the veneer of military non-intervention and dispatch uniformed PLA troops to patrol the city, despite the mainland pledging 50 years of no change to Hong Kong’s systems and institutions since 1997.

On paper, that shouldn’t be a worry, as neither the Basic Law enacted as Hong Kong’s constitutional document post-1997 or the law governing the garrisoning of Chinese troops has stipulated that the PLA has jurisdiction in the city, except in the event of a serious riot or anarchy endangering Hong Kong’s and China’s state security that necessitates troops being called out to maintain or restore order.

Disorder on that scale has never been seen in the more than 20 years of the post-handover era, and is unlikely to be seen in the foreseeable future. And so far the bulk of PLA troops, all meticulously selected from their peers, have been confined by internal rules to their barracks throughout their deployment in the city.

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PLA troops in camouflage clothes are seen in Hong Kong’s Central district during a drill. Photo: Handout

Nonetheless, there have been fresh concerns that releasing uniformed PLA soldiers from their camps could also mean expanding the jurisdiction of the military police – who monitor discipline in the armed forces but have no authority over the general public – from within the barracks to the wider Hong Kong.

The latest development is against a broader backdrop: Hong Kong is seeing a rise in localist groups – mainly founded by young people born after the handover – who demand that the future of the city be determined by its residents, or even total severance of ties with the mainland to go independent.

Some observers blame the stalled democratization after 1997 and local authorities’ many failures in alleviating housing and social-mobility woes for the emergence of these belligerent yet still marginal thoughts among youth.

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A PLA soldier takes aim at buildings in Hong Kong’s Central and Admiralty. Photo: PLA Daily

The PLA garrison has also responded to these trends both symbolically – hanging a giant red-star-pentagon emblem atop its headquarters building in Central that shines above the city’s iconic Victoria Harbor at night – and in action by mounting a slew of large-scale drills and maneuvers to flex its muscles.

Reports and photos over the years have revealed that PLA sailors leveled guns at buildings in the city’s financial districts in some exercises while squadrons of attack helicopters flew above for reconnaissance and mock attacks. In other cases, anti-riot drills have been held at multiple barracks by soldiers kitted out with riot shields and pepper spray who familiarize themselves with a setting resembling streets in the city to track down rioters and separatists.

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