21 September 2019
PLA Hong Kong garrison invited the public and the media to witness a live-fire drill for the first time, fueling speculation about the motive. Photo: CNSA
PLA Hong Kong garrison invited the public and the media to witness a live-fire drill for the first time, fueling speculation about the motive. Photo: CNSA

What’s the message behind PLA’s latest live-fire drill?

The People’s Liberation Army Hong Kong garrison conducted a live-fire drill over the weekend, with the public and the media invited to watch the event for the first time.  

As such exercises by the Chinese military were held away from public gaze in previous years, the move Saturday marked an important break from the past. And, not surprisingly, it has fueled intense speculation as to what could be behind the new strategy.  

PLA officials said they threw the event open to the public as part of efforts to improve the military’s transparency amid Hong Kong’s handover anniversary celebrations.

The event was not aimed at any imaginary enemy, though it should assure Hongkongers that the city is guarded by a mighty force, the military said.

While the explanation seems strait-forward, political observers feel that Beijing may have used the live-fire drill to send a message to Hong Kong people and the media. 

Coming just days after China adopted a new national security law, the show of military power was intended to remind people where Hong Kong’s sovereignty lies. 

Observers also noted that the drill was held barely two weeks after Hong Kong’s pan-democrats voted down Beijing-designed electoral reform package for the 2017 chief executive election.

In the drill Saturday, which was held at the Tsing Shan shooting range in New Territories, soldiers using armored vehicles, anti-tank rockets and gunships carried out simulation exercises defending purported militant attacks in a mountainous area.

Several dignitaries, including Beijing’s Liaison Office Director Zhang Xiaoming and Hong Kong’s Security Secretary Lai Tung-kwok, witnessed the military exercise along with hundreds of people.

What was interesting was that the PLA also invited journalists from anti-Beijing media outlets to witness the live-fire drill.

It could be a sign that the central government is tweaking its media strategy, shedding its knee-jerk animosity toward organizations such as Next Media that have been vocal supporters of the democracy movement.  

Through publications such as Next Magazine and Apple Daily, Next Media has been playing an active role in mobilizing Hong Kong people to stand up for their rights. And group founder Jimmy Lai has made huge donations to pan-democrats, giving Beijing an excuse to boycott his publications and urging enterprises not to place advertisements in his papers.

But after the failed electoral reforms vote in the Legislative Council last month, which came amid a walkout goof-up by 33 pro-Beijing lawmakers, Beijing seems to be fine-tuning its strategy towards opposition media.

Apple Daily and Next Magazine were invited to the Central government liaison office in late June to attend a gathering between Beijing officials and pro-Beijing loyalists.

It marked the first time in recent times that Next Media was formally invited by Chinese authorities for an official press conference. And Apple Daily was also invited for the latest PLA live-fire drill, along with the rest of the media.

The initiative suggests that Chinese officials may be seeking to repair relations with Next Media in order to win the support of its readers, rather than take a hostile approach which has proved a failure.

That said, the softer approach toward anti-Beijing voices does not mean that Beijing has budged from its tough stance on the sovereignty issue.

Some political analysts believe the live-fire drill was aimed at sending a message to the so-called Hong Kong independence activists. The Communist Party has been criticizing the activists as separatists and insisting that their campaigns should be nipped in the bud.

Overall, the military drill and the new national security law — which covers a wide range of state interests — make it clear that Beijing is determined to assert its control over Hong Kong.

Chinese authorities have said that Hong Kong should enact some legislation of its own to protect national security, in line with Beijing’s move.

It stems from a desire to align the laws and processes in Hong Kong closer to those in the mainland.

As Beijing takes a more proactive role and tightens its grip over local affairs, Hong Kong people might discover that the “one country, two systems” could be under threat much sooner than 2047, when the existing arrangement is officially set to expire.

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EJ Insight writer