| HONG KONG, July 1
HONG KONG, July 1 As tens of thousands gathered in Hong Kong on
Tuesday to demand greater democracy and freedom from Beijing's control, China's
military garrison stationed in the freewheeling capitalist hub launched its own
offensive - to charm them.
The People's Liberation Army (PLA), the armed forces of China's ruling
Communist Party, offered visitors a rare glimpse of barracks life at three of
the dozen or so bases scattered throughout the densely populated former British
colony, as part of two "open days" on Sunday and Tuesday.
"They never let foreigners in, so I thought I would take the opportunity to
come in when they let visitors in to see what my neighbours are really doing,"
said one Australian visitor who lives near the Shek Kong barracks in a quiet and
lush corner of Hong Kong's New Territories.
"Every morning, I see them play basketball."
Visitors to Shek Kong on Sunday were treated to marching troops in
immaculate uniforms and a "counter-terrorism" drill replete with helicopters,
smoke flares and an obstacle course of concertina wire. Camo-wearing soldiers
raided a small building to capture a masked man in a balaclava.
Tuesday, the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong's return to China, is also a de
facto day of peaceful street protests. This year's march comes amid higher
than-usual-tensions with Beijing, with democracy activists vowing a civil
disobedience campaign if Beijing does not allow a "genuine vote" for Hong Kong's
next leader in 2017, the first-ever election of its kind in China.
Beijing has labelled both the civil disobedience campaign, which has yet to
begin, and an unofficial referendum on democracy that attracted almost a quarter
of registered voters, illegal, raising fears that the government may try to
Several current and retired Chinese officials have warned in recent months
that Beijing is prepared to unleash the army garrison to handle any riots in
Hong Kong. Some activists fear Beijing will use signs of
violence as an excuse to bring in the army.
MILITARY DRILLS AND MARXIST THEORY
While Hong Kong police have held drills on how to handle protesters, little
is known about preparations by the PLA, who raised alarm among some observers at
the 1997 handover ceremony when they drove into the Central business district on
the back of army trucks with highly choreographed precision.
But since then they have been almost invisible, although armed vehicles are
sometimes spotted driving through town at night. The roughly 8,000 troops spend
their two-year tours isolated on barracks strictly separated from the public.
In June, a judge sentenced a 15-year-old Hong Kong resident to a night-time
curfew for trespassing on barracks property, after he and two others took photos
of themselves waving the former colonial flag just inside the gate. The other
two were fined.
Many of the soldiers have yet to enjoy the bright lights of Hong Kong, a
long-time R&R favourite for visiting western warships. Those stationed at Shek
Kong, which in the 1980s had its own nearby bright lights and raunchy bar scene,
have no internet access and no cellphones, said one 24-year-old soldier, who
gave his last name as Huang.
They get to call families back home in the mainland only once on weekends,
watch Chinese state television together every night, and spend their time
drilling and studying Marxist theory.
Huang said he had visited Hong Kong once as a tourist before being stationed
in the territory, but had not left the base since he arrived a year ago.
The soldiers at Shek Kong also gave children a chance to fire mock assault
rifles at a line of dummies that gave off a trail of pink smoke when hit.
"I thought the military camp was a very mysterious place," said Huang Wen, a
visitor from the southern mainland Chinese city of Shenzhen, just across the
border from Hong Kong. "But now I can see what weapons they use and how the
People's Liberation Army can defend Hong Kong, and defend the motherland."
The open days may also have left a lasting impression with members of a
younger generation, such as Josh Lam, a fourth-grader touring Shek Kong.
"I know much more about guns," he said.
(Additional Reporting by Sarah Charlton and Stefanie McIntyre; Editing by Nick