PLA troops in Hong Kong. Photo: Xinhua
PLA troops in Hong Kong. Photo: Xinhua

People’s Liberation Army troops have been quietly taking part in clean-up operations in Hong Kong in the aftermath of typhoon Mangkhut, drawing praise from some and criticism from others.

A “battalion size” number of Chinese troops were deployed from their heavily-fortified barracks to the city’s massive country parks last week.

Their mission was not to conduct war games or hone their survival skills, but to take away uprooted trees and remove debris from lookout pavilions, barbecue sites and hiking trails. The typhoon left fallen branches and other items scattered over Hong Kong’s otherwise pristine hills and beaches when the city was buffeted by super typhoon Mangkhut on September 16.

The PLA’s garrison in the city were given credit for the speedy reopening of the 100-kilometer MacLehose Trail in the New Territories last week, a sinuous, scenic hiking trail popular with outdoor enthusiasts.

However, the sight of Chinese troops taking part in the post-typhoon clean-up was seen by some as yet another sign of the mainland’s military seeking more exposure in the former British colony.

It was the first such deployment by the PLA garrison since the city returned to Chinese rule 21 years ago. It is understood that the Hong Kong government never sought help from the PLA when Mangkhut struck or in the aftermath.

Apart from the visible damage to the city’s greenery and landscaping and some shattered windows, no one died in Hong Kong and only a small number of people were injured, thanks to sound infrastructure and a well-oiled emergency response.

The monster typhoon battered the city with strong winds, heavy ocean swells and rain unseen in almost half a century.

PLA troops had been removing fallen branches and debris before taking a rest during their clean-up operations in country parks. Photos: Handout

Local media reported that soldiers in uniform joined forces with staff from the office of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in the city as well as more than 700 employees of Chinese state-owned enterprises, a joint yet unsolicited effort under the coordination of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong officials thanked the PLA for its initiative to clean up the country parks, adding that the PLA’s contribution was a voluntary community service in nature.

“The [Hong Kong] government did not interfere with their activity. We did not play any role,” said a senior official. “Our police, disciplined services and our colleagues also took part in voluntary services. These things happen, so do not read too much into this. The government did not ask the PLA for help.”

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam reportedly politely turned down the PLA’s offer of help, obviously mindful of the negative perception arising from the military’s involvement.

Under the PLA’s Garrison Law, the Chinese military must not interfere with Hong Kong’s governance, but troops can be called out to help with disaster relief only if requested by the city’s government and approved by Beijing.

Hong Kong’s sister city Macau did turn to the PLA and requested the force to take a pivotal role in disaster relief work after typhoon Hato tore into the former Portuguese enclave in August 2017 and left 10 residents dead.

The PLA’s Macau Garrison dispatched hundreds of solders and drew recruits from neighboring province Guangdong and removed debris and cleaned streets and parks in a week-long operation.

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