20 October 2018
An aerial view of the Central barracks before the renovation of the headquarters building. The central government complex is in the background. Photo: Internet
An aerial view of the Central barracks before the renovation of the headquarters building. The central government complex is in the background. Photo: Internet

How Deng made sure there would be a PLA garrison in Hong Kong

It’s quiet most of the time but at other times, the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong makes some noises such as when it conducts high-profile maneuvers.

Hongkongers may have to get used to seeing Chinese warships in Victoria Harbor or soldiers in the streets raising their weapons toward skyscrapers in Central.

The largest display was a live-fire drill in July, two weeks after Hong Kong legislators rejected Beijing’s proposed election reform proposal.

Armored vehicles, anti-tank rockets and gunships were involved in the military exercises in the Tsing Shan Firing Range in western New Territories.

They were defending against a simulated attack from the mountains.

Some interpreted the drill as a signal to “evil overseas forces” or anti-Beijing troublemakers.

People familiar with the Sino-British talks in the 1980s may remember media reports that Beijing would not send its troops to Hong Kong, citing former Chinese defense minister Geng Biao (耿飚).

Geng, also a deputy chairman of the Chinese National People’s Congress at the time, told Hong Kong reporters on the sidelines of the NPC session in May 1984 that the central government might not send troops to Hong Kong at all after 1997.

These remarks seemed to assuage British feelings after Beijing rebuffed Margaret Thatcher’s idea of how the change of sovereignty should proceed.

London regrouped and pivoted to military issues, saying the presence of the Chinese military in Hong Kong would damage people’s confidence.

Richard Evans, then the British ambassador to China and chief negotiator at the talks, warned that such a scenario could trigger a mass exodus of the Hong Kong elite.

Against that backdrop, Geng’s remarks sounded reassuring. It removed a Damocles sword over Hong Kong.

But these were quickly overtaken by events thanks to Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平).

Now it can be revealed from Xinhua’s archives that Deng castigated Geng behind closed doors for the remarks and made it clear who had the final say in the matter.

It should be noted that Deng was chairman of the Communist Party’s powerful Central Military Commission, although he supposedly had no power over the NPC under the constitution.

Before meeting a group of Hong Kong dignitaries in the Great Hall of the People on May 25, 1984, a stern-faced Deng ordered people to remain when security cordoned off the area and pushed journalists away after the customary photo op.

He told the assembled visitors that Geng was “talking gibberish” and that China was justified to send troops to Hong Kong to assert its sovereignty.

Deng said “a small brigade” would be stationed in the future special administrative region to “guarantee stability and prosperity”.

“Explain to me why we cannot send the army when Hong Kong is returned to China?” he said.

Hong Kong reporters were startled by Deng’s outburst. The next day, news of Chinese troops marching into Hong Kong after the handover was splashed in local newspapers.

Deng also ruled out keeping the Gurkhas, Britain’s paramilitary force of Nepali soldiers, beyond 1997.

Evans called an urgent meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Zhou Nan (周南), then Beijing’s de facto envoy in Hong Kong, to protest Deng’s unilateral decision.

But Zhou, writing in his memoirs years later, said he refused to bring Evans’s concerns to Deng, saying he would “never allow any ifs or buts”.

Deng’s steadfastness was typical of a communist leader in his era who relied on the military and showed distrust of Hong Kong people despite Beijing’s official propaganda to win their hearts and minds.

London never picked up the issue again after Beijing promised that its troops would not interfere with the running of Hong Kong and that its taxpayers would not have to pay for their upkeep.

The PLA began preparing for its Hong Kong garrison in 1993 with an elite squad forming the core of the military force.

But until now, there are no official figures about its size. Some estimates put it 10,000-strong.

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A file photo shows Deng Xiaoping meeting British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the Sino-British talks. Photo: Xinhua

EJ Insight writer

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