Barrack break-ins threaten security of Hong Kong-mainland relations

By Louise Ho Source:Global Times Published: 2014-1-9 22:08:01

There have been two trespasses to the People's Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong Garrison in the past two weeks, the first time that such incidents happened in Hong Kong. The break-ins have important implications for the role of the PLA in Hong Kong, as well as the future relations between Hong Kong and the mainland, especially when the city has just started consultations on political reform.

Several local residents broke into the restricted military area in Tamar to protest against a government plan to convert a piece of harbor front land in Central into a military berth for the PLA on December 26. These activists asked the PLA to retreat from Hong Kong while flying the former colonial flag and ignoring the warnings of PLA soldiers. The latest intrusion was reportedly on January 3 by a local man. 

The intruders are from a group called "Hong Kong People First" that advocates the "independence" of Hong Kong. The sole purpose of trying to force their way into the barracks is to provoke the central government and get public attention.

The Hong Kong police have arrested five people in connection with the trespasses in early January. It is the first time for both the PLA and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government to handle such break-ins. The PLA Hong Kong Garrison said it would "take resolute and decisive" action to deal with any intrusions, while the case will be handled under local laws.

The PLA has reacted to the trespasses with great restraint and tolerance. Military officers just expelled the intruders.

The mainstream public opinion in Hong Kong is that breaking into military barracks is a very serious matter and an offence that has to be dealt with.

The garrison is a symbol of sovereignty and Hong Kong's security. As the Sing Tao Daily, a major local newspaper, warned in its editorial on January 3, if Hong Kong does not take hostile garrison entry seriously, one day someone may make use of a protest to enter a garrison and launch a terrorist attack, especially as the mainland has become the target of terrorist groups.

In Hong Kong, the maximum penalty for breaking into a military base is two years' imprisonment and a fine of HK$500 ($64.47), but the enforcement of the regulations is relaxed compared to many other regions.

As Executive Council member and former secretary for security Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee pointed out, in many countries and regions such as the US, intruders in military compounds can be shot.

The incidents lead to discussions on how the PLA in Hong Kong could take a more active role. Although the PLA has been dedicated to defending the security and stability of Hong Kong since the handover, many people in the city still lack knowledge of the PLA garrison, such as their structure and what they do every day.

The PLA holds an open day about once a year at the Ngong Shuen Chau Barracks to let Hongkongers visit the barracks and learn about the training and everyday lives of the PLA soldiers. But a one-day activity is far from enough to engage the public and promote its image.

The Hong Kong garrison should take part in more community activities such as giving talks at schools to help the public in understanding more about the PLA's work.

Although no one takes extremist groups like "Hong Kong People First" seriously in Hong Kong, their increasing activities in recent years show some people in the city want to damage the relations between Hong Kong and the mainland.

The incidents come at a time when Hong Kong is having ongoing discussions about the city's political future.

In December the HKSAR government started the consultations for selecting the chief executive in 2017 and for forming the Legislative Council in 2016.

Any action that tries to sabotage Hong Kong-mainland relations may affect the outcome of the reform, something that no one in Hong Kong or the mainland wants to see.

Both the central and HKSAR governments must learn from the break-ins and remain vigilant about actions that damage national interests.

The author is a Shanghai-based editor with the Global Times from Hong Kong.

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