China's wide-eyed army tiptoes in

Hong Kong handover
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For years Hong Kong has been worrying about China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) crossing the border. Now it has happened, but the full impact was a little muted by the advance guard being caught up in one of the colony's famous traffic jams.

Yesterday 40 unarmed soldiers arrived in Hong Kong as the first part of the advance guard which will prepare for the arrival of the full garrison after the British army departs on 30 June. Months of acrimonious negotiation preceded this historic event, which was something of an anti-climax. Packed in eight mini-buses and cars the bemused looking soldiers made their way from the border to the Prince of Wales Barracks situated in the heart of Hong Kong's financial district.

Their commander, Major-General Zhou Borong, strode out of his modest black car looking pleased with himself and with the buildings which are about to become the PLA's new Hong Kong headquarters.

The British put on a suitably modest welcoming ceremony, most of which was not conducted in front of the media who both outnumbered - and looked more terrifying than - the incoming PLA force.

"This is a historic moment for both British and Chinese armed forces," boomed Major General Bryan Dutton, the Commander of the British Forces, as he stood beside General Zhou, who gave a predictable reply in Chinese.

British and Chinese negotiators are still hard at it trying to agree on how many more PLA troops will be allowed in before the handover of power. It seems likely that China will eventually post some 10,000 soldiers in Hong Kong, which is about the number Britain stationed in the colony before the big drawdown in 1994.

Hong Kong people remain wary of the PLA, following its role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. However, a poll which appeared in the Ming Pao newspaper yesterday showed that only 29 per cent of those interviewed said they were afraid of the PLA being stationed in the territory. Thirty five per cent had no such fears.