Members of China’s People Liberation Army (PLA) march during an ‘open barracks day’ in Hong Kong on April 28, 2012.
Rarely seen in public and hidden behind garrison walls spread across the city, China’s military–known as the People’s Liberation Army–keeps a very low profile in Hong Kong.
Residents of the former British colony, which was returned to Chinese control in 1997, “are very sensitive and watch every aspect of the ‘one-country, two-systems’ plan to see whether it really works,” says Chan Che-Po, whose research at the city’s Lingnan University has focused on the army.
As a Chinese special administrative region, local leaders run the city but diplomatic relations and defense are all handled by Beijing.
“The PLA definitely should not interfere into Hong Kong affairs,” says Mr. Chan.
But that doesn’t mean Hong Kongers aren’t incredibly curious to meet PLA soldiers currently stationed in town. This past week, the PLA flung open the doors of three garrisons to members of the public, to a wildly enthusiastic response. The 28,000 free tickets available for the open-house events were all snapped up by eager would-be visitors within just two hours of their release. The open-house event, held both to mark Labor Day and also to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to the mainland, featured military bands and a display of weapons and soldiers’ living quarters. Such open houses—held annually—have to date received a total of 300,000 visitors.
“Hong Kong people have no exposure to any military establishment, so especially for younger people and children, if they have the chance to grab a gun, they’ll go,” says Mr. Chan. He doesn’t think the feverish interest is reflective of any particular sense of nationalism or sense of identification with the PLA among Hong Kongers. “They are just curious,” he says.
A Hong Kong University survey last year found that levels of identification among Hong Kongers with the mainland were at the lowest levels they’d ever reached in 12 years. By contrast, local attitudes toward the People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong haveimproved since the British handover.
These days, Mr. Chan says the typical PLA soldier stationed in Hong Kong would be more professional, having gone through special training in Hong Kong’s local politics at a base in nearby Shenzhen. As the rest of the PLA has grown more professionalized, urban and educated over the years, with the typical recruit boasting wealthier family backgrounds than in years prior, says Mr. Chan, those trends would likely be apparent among those stationed inHong Kong, as well.
Hong Kong-based members of the PLA are also better drivers than their counterparts across the border, says Mr. Chan, who lives near a garrison in the New Territories and has the occasional chance to see PLA soldiers driving around. In mainland China, he says, PLA soldiers “drive a lot faster, and not in such a disciplined way.”
“But in Hong Kong,” he says, “they make sure they’re never above the [speed] limit