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PLA finds a place in Hong Kong's heart
By Wang Shanshan (China Daily)

PLA finds a place in Hong Kong's heart

Two soldiers visit a seniors' home in Hong Kong. Bao Yong

A little more than four years ago, Liao Yong, then 18, stopped by his teacher's office to let him know that his team had won a rugby match at his hometown in Changsha, in Central China's Hunan Province.

There he noticed two men dressed in what could have been military uniforms save for a few differences. They looked the boy up and down, and finally fixed their eyes on the rugby ball in his hands. After some light conversation, one of them asked: "Do you want to join us? We are from the army. A very good one."

The boy was overwhelmed.

"They were so tall and strong, and their clothes were so beautiful," he recalled. He did not hesitate to say yes, and a few months later he became a soldier in the People's Liberation Army stationed in Hong Kong.

Liao has been the pride of his family ever since - the PLA's Hong Kong garrison is famous throughout the country for its attractive soldiers.

"I may go on to achieve great things in the future, but there is no bigger honor than being stationed with the PLA in Hong Kong," said Liao. "It feels good to be honored while I'm still so young."

But there is no honor without sacrifice, as he soon discovered. Barracks life can be dull for young men - the soldiers would wake up at 6 am every morning, train for eight hours and then go to sleep by 10 pm.

The thousands of young men and women who have made the transition from campus to barracks have all shared the experience of adapting the soldier's lifestyle. And in interviews, many of them expressed a shared admiration for Hong Kong society, particularly the way the local people behave, and the rule of law.

They are particularly cautious about the latter point. A prime example is the PLA's vehicle transportation company - it has never once broken a traffic law.

The army has a department of legal affairs at its headquarters in Hong Kong, and it is responsible for keeping in touch with local courts and speaking to the media.

"The PLA would never interfere with court decisions," said Zhang Rucheng, political commissar of the PLA in Hong Kong.

The PLA tries its best not to disturb the local people. On base, one never hears the sound of honking horns because the army has abandoned the practice out of respect for the neighbors.

Keeping disturbances to a minimum can be challenging. For example, the navy once had to reschedule a land-assault drill at the last minute in order to accommodate people swimming at a public beach, said Lu Gang, a navy captain stationed in Kowloon.

The maneuver was supposed to take place on the southern coast of Hong Kong Island last year. However, the bay the navy was planning to use is also home to a public swimming area and a sailing area for the local yachting club. To avoid endangering the sailors and swimmers, the navy planned to land at 7 am and then retreat two hours later.

Navy officers carefully studied the bay's geography and prepared a detailed plan for their assault. They informed the local government of their plan just before the maneuver was due to start, only to discover that there was a primary school on a nearby hilltop, and that the pupils would be arriving around the time the assault was taking place.

"We certainly didn't want to make a big fuss and scare the kids," said the captain. "So we reported this latest information to our superiors, who decided that we would have to carry out the maneuver before sunrise."

"In this way a regular maneuver was changed into a nighttime one, which could have been dangerous for the troops involved," he said. In the end, the maneuver was a success, and there were no casualties.

These struggles to ensure peace for their neighbors have made the soldiers and officers curious about Hongkongers.

"Hong Kong people are always nice when they visit our barracks on the open days." said Liao. "They are gentle and polite. They never spit or pick flowers. They showed us a society that is different from what I've seen in Hong Kong movies."

"Before I arrived here, my friends and parents - and even I - used to worry about my safety because of what I saw in movies about goo-waak-chai (young and dangerous people)," he said. "But that was a false impression. People here are good, and they obey the laws. I really want to know more about them."

Huang Sujuan, a nurse at the military hospital, said she was curious about how local hospitals could run so efficiently.

"I visited one once when I took a sick visitor over during an open day," she said. "It was very quiet, the emergency room was in order and the nurses all looked kind and professional. I'd like to talk with them if I have the chance."

The curiosity goes both ways. Hong Kongers also want to know what the PLA soldiers are like. More than 270,000 people, foreigners included, have visited the barracks during the 14 open days that have been held in the past decade, said Wang Jitang, commander of the PLA in Hong Kong.

The PLA has also organized two summer camps, in which some 100 local children have taken part.

"We did some military exercises, which the kids found exhausting at first," said Wang Peijun, political instructor of a battalion stationed at the southern tip of Hong Kong Island. "But after two weeks they became great friends with the officers. They cried when they had to leave, and we cried too. It was like the day soldiers retire."

Many of the former campers have returned to the garrison during open days and have helped the soldiers and officers communicate with the visitors, said Wang.

Hongkongers' attitude towards the PLA has changed slowly over time, according to Hou Yujuan, who has been a nurse at the military hospital since 2003.

"People used to be very curious about the army, while they kept their distance from us," she said. "Every time we went out, many people asked to take photos with us, but few wanted to talk."

But people are starting to warm to the soldiers. Hou cited the example of a woman who visited the garrison with her husband on May 1 this year. The couple had left home at 6:30 am and traveled three hours to the base. Because of the long journey, the woman felt sick, and Hou ended up spending the day with her at the hospital.

"She held my hand and invited me to visit her when we parted," said the nurse. "She made me realize that understanding is only achieved through communication."
PLA finds a place in Hong Kong's heart

(China Daily 06/26/2007 page4)

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