HONG KONG, July 1 (Reuters) - 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 intervene.
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.
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 Macfie)