Hong Kong handover: No time wasted as forces arrive by land, sea and air

China rushes to establish a military presence within hours of British departure
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The Independent Online
China wasted no time asserting its newly regained sovereignty over Hong Kong. A seemingly endless line of People's Liberation Army (PLA) vehicles rolled into Hong Kong at dawn this morning, bringing 4,000 troops, a vast arsenal of weapons, and the 21 armoured personnel carriers which Britain failed to convince China were not appropriate for its new territory.

In Shenzhen, on the mainland side of the border, the soldiers were seen off in driving rain by dancing Chinese dragons and flower-waving schoolchildren. Unlike the 509 PLA troops who had crossed three hours before the handover, these troops all openly carried rifles.

At 6am precisely, they started to cross the border at three points. Just inside Hong Kong territory, in the district of Sheung Shui, hundreds of villagers turned out to welcome their new army, despite the appalling weather. A welcoming banner and a mirror were presented to the arrivals, traditional gifts of respect. As they drove further towards their new homes, the route was lined by crowds waving the new Hong Kong Special Administration Region flag.

Earlier, in the middle of the night, the Chinese flag had already been raised in the Prince of Wales barracks right in the heart of Hong Kong island. Ten military ships and sea-going vessels were shown on both mainland and Hong Kong television steaming towards their new berths. Helicopters were ready to fly in.

The Chinese military garrison will consist of 4,700 troops, many more than were stationed in Hong Kong by Britain in the years before the departure. They will occupy the British-built barracks and headquarters in the territory's central financial district as well as taking over a recently constructed naval base custom-built for them.

Clad in newly designed uniforms and armed with rudimentary knowledge of the local Cantonese language as well as English, the PLA garrison is seen as an elite force in Chinese eyes. But they will be paupers by Hong Kong standards as regular soldiers will be earning less than pounds 10 per month, which is the price of a couple of beers in some of the more trendy bars.

As they left Shenzhen, the troops were instructed by General Liu Huaqing, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, to be on their best behaviour. He said: "With your actual deeds you must win the support and love of the Hong Kong people."

Once well respected, the PLA's reputation was severely damaged by its role in the Tiananmen Square massacre. One of the generals commanding the new Hong Kong forces told Bryan Dutton, the outgoing British commander, that he was well aware of the army's need to restore its image and saw the Hong Kong deployment as an opportunity to show the world that they could do so.

Both the size of the garrison and the decision to bring in armoured cars, which could well be used for internal control, have been criticised by the United States and British governments. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said "there is no doubt that China has the right to station units of the PLA in Hong Kong", but he questioned "the scale of the initial deployment" and said that bringing in armoured cars was "unnecessary and inappropriate". China insists that the stationing of troops is entirely a matter of Chinese sovereignty and no one else's business.

At an early stage in the negotiations for the handover, the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping flew into a rage on being told his officials had been sympathetic to British demands for a minimal Chinese military presence in Hong Kong. He insisted that China would maintain a garrison at least as large as Britain's. The troops in Hong Kong are backed up by a sizeable force on China's border which can be mobilised in emergency. All troops in the region have been put on alert during the handover period.