Deal struck for advance army

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After months of wrangling Britain and China have finally reached an agreement on the deployment of the first advance party of People's Liberation Army (PLA) troops to be based in Hong Kong before the Chinese takeover on July 1.

The Hong Kong government announced yesterday that 40 personnel will cross the border into Hong Kong on April 21, by coincidence the Queen's birthday. Under the terms of the agreement they will not bear arms, nor enjoy any special status or immunities and they will not be allowed to display Chinese or PLA flags.

In all some 200 personnel are expected before the handover. China had been keen to see a larger advance party but Britain is sensitive about any move which might undermine its sovereignty over Hong Kong in the months before it losses its last major colonial possession.

There is particular sensitivity about the presence of the PLA in Hong Kong because of its association with the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Last February Bryan Dutton, the Commander of British Forces in Hong Kong, revealed that his incoming PLA counterpart, General Liu Zhenwu, told him that he "was concerned" about the PLA's image following the massacre, and that China "wished to use Hong Kong as a window to the world to reverse that image".

China refuses to say how many troops will be sent to Hong Kong, but the government in Peking has indicated that its garrison will be no larger than that sent by Britain. This is far from precise because, at its height, the British garrison numbered some 30,000 personnel which was cut sharply to 3,250 in 1994.

Last year China said the troops stationed in Hong Kong would not be subject to local law, except in criminal cases involving off duty personnel. This has rekindled fears about the PLA being a law unto itself.

As for the troops, they have little hope of getting rich from their salaries. Even General Liu will be paid less than pounds 100 per month, less than a fifth the amount a cleaner earns.