Despite China's PR Efforts, Hong Kong Fears Red Army

PRIVATE NIU is being depicted in the official Chinese press as the model soldier to be sent to Hong Kong after it returns to Chinese control in 1997.

Not only does the 19-year-old speak English and Cantonese, the Hong Kong dialect, but he is also a prize-winning essayist back home in Anhui Province.

Unfortunately, when about 300 businessmen, legislators, and journalists were allowed to inspect the future garrison of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) at its present camp across the border in Shenzhen, this paragon could not be found. Nor were there many other linguists or essayists evident among the troops, although they did display impressive skills in kung fu and the use of the bayonet.

Most Hong Kong residents await the coming of the PLA with considerable trepidation. The memory of the bloody crackdown at Tiananmen Square in June 1989 is still fresh. Older residents, refugees from the Communists, remember how the PLA marched into Shanghai in 1949 and imposed martial law. Hong Kong newspapers often run stories telling of rogue PLA units allegedly involved in smuggling or corruption.

Hand-picked nice guys

So Beijing has put on a public relations campaign to assure Hong Kong that its troops here will be well-behaved. The soldiers, airmen, and sailors have been ''hand picked.'' They are receiving lessons in Cantonese and are learning local social customs, and the Basic Law, the territory's post-1997 constitution.

''The Chinese did a good job'' with the Shenzhen camp visit, says Andy Ho, a Hong Kong political consultant.

''Hong Kong's Chinese television stations interviewed residents next to the [PLA] base and were told they were glad to have them as neighbors because they felt safer. The visit produced quite a few positive stories,'' says Mr. Ho, who concedes that many people still harbor worries.

Everyone seems to agree that the troops headed for Hong Kong, the elite Red First Regiment, have a proud history. But Hong Kong journalists are not too clear on it.

Did the regiment descend from the heroes of the Dadu River during the Long March (from 1934 to '35)? Or did it trace its pedigree back farther to the Autumn Harvest Uprising, an attempt by Mao Zedong to incite a peasant revolt in 1927? Chinese revolutionary history was never a very large part of Hong Kong's British colonial curriculum.

Beijing has shown obvious care in the selection of the garrison leaders. The designated commander, Maj. Gen. Liu Zhenwu, is one of the PLA's up-and-comers. His deputy, Sr. Col. Zhou Borong, should feel at home in the former colony. He is one of the few Chinese Army officers to have attended the British War College.

General Liu told reporters that the PLA garrison would be about the same size as the current 3,000-strong British force.

They comprise mostly a battalion of Gurkha troops and a handful of Royal Navy patrol boats. Until they recently handed duties over to the police, the main British mission was to guard against illegal aliens from China.

The principal mission of the PLA will be to assert Chinese sovereignty over the territory and defend it from outside attack.

Many defense analysts have also noted Hong Kong's excellent location as a base for possible operations in the South China Sea, where Beijing has disputed claims. Other PLA missions will include disaster relief and helping to maintain public order.

It is the latter, of course, that worries Hong Kong residents the most. To help allay these fears, China's President Jiang Zemin recently admonished Army leaders: ''Hong Kong will be run by Hong Kong people, and the PLA garrison should understand this fully.''

The territory's attitude toward the troops can be best summed up as ''out of sight, out of mind.'' Hong Kong residents were happy to hear that the troops mostly would be confined to their bases.

Low pay means no fun

In fact, Private Niu and his comrades will be so ill-paid in relation to the cost of living in Hong Kong that duty here does not hold out much prospect for fun.

General Liu himself, presumably the highest-paid Chinese soldier coming to Hong Kong, earns only about $150 a month, or less than one-third of the minimum wage for a housemaid.

But there are compensations. He will have the use of Headquarters House, the British garrison commander's handsome quarters.

And some legislators here are talking about ways Hong Kong might augment the pittance Chinese soldiers now receive.

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