There is a widely available video recording of members of Hong Kong’s disciplined services executing a goose-stepping march-past. The goose step is a very demanding way of marching and requires considerable practice to achieve perfection, as these officers apparently do.
The rationale for this is said to be that after 24 years it is not appropriate for those charged with upholding national security to be following British Army patterns of marching.
Stechtschrift, to give the goose step its correct name, was first devised by Leopold I, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau for the Prussian army in the mid-18th century. It was adopted by the Russian army during the reign of Czar of All the Russias Paul I. The Chinese Nationalist army was trained in it by German advisers in the 1920s. Chinese Communist forces adopted it during the Civil War.
The German word translates directly as “piercing step.” Provided that you have observed geese on the march, you quickly appreciate why the English translation is goose step.
As anyone who has ever tried it knows, it is not a physical maneuver that can be carried out over long periods of time. For this reason, it is customarily reserved for ceremonial duties only.
It has long been associated with Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany, which is why this form of marching has, unfortunately, acquired a pejorative connotation.
In his commentary “England Your England” published in 1941, George Orwell observed that the goose step was only used in countries where the population was too frightened to laugh at the military.
People in England seeing the comedic aspect will be put in mind of Nat Jackley, Max Wall and John Cleese’s Ministry of Silly Walks.
A survey of those regimes whose military have adopted the goose step gives substance to the Orwellian remark.
Of course, Hongkongers can sing, like Anna in The King and I:
“When shivering in my shoes, I strike a careless pose And whistle a happy tune and no one ever knows I’m afraid.”
For Hong Kong, however, it is no laughing matter, for it is surely a step in the overall policy to bend Asia’s world city to the cultural concepts of the central government.
What to the casual observer may appear as a matter of minor ceremonial interest will be seen as an expression of loyalty by the political elite.
Something else of interest to those who view the goose-stepping march-past is the choice of music played by the superb Hong Kong Police Band.
The time-honored military marches favored in the past, such as “Marche Militaire” and “Colonel Bogey,” have been eschewed for more home-grown compositions.
If this results in royalties being paid to a new generation of Chinese composers, I shall applaud the move. But aficionados of military marches will miss that colorful range of melodies to which soldiers of every nation have marched.
As every soldier knows, one who has had to march mile after mile, carrying a load of personal equipment as well as weapons and ammunition, singing, humming or whistling a catchy tune helps to lighten the load.
What, for many, will be a new area of keen interest is the increasing endeavors of people anxious to demonstrate their loyalty to the central government, each one trying to outshine the other in expressions of patriotism. Shoe-shining will become an overcrowded light industry.
It is profoundly to be hoped that none of these patriots, all genuflecting in the direction of Beijing and overcome with zeal, get too close to those in front of them.
Similarly, one does not want to find the ultra-loyal follower downloading the “March of the Volunteers” as their ringtone, goodness knows what effect that would have in a crowd.
One point of curiosity remains: Why would the HKSAR government want its police force to emulate the creation of an 18th-century Prussian nobleman? Answers on a postcard.
Neville Sarony QC is a noted Hong Kong lawyer with more than 50 years at the Bar.