Hong Kong Diary: June 27, three days to handover

A press release is a rude awaking.

Published June 30, 1997 8:18AM (EDT)

all of a sudden today, the situation here has started to look just
a little bit darker. The party people are still pouring in and officials are still towing the celebration fireworks onto their launching pads in the middle of the harbor. But in the late afternoon a fax came in from the new chief executive's office, reminding us all of some sterner realities, and for a few moments the hubbub was stilled.

The People's Liberation Army, the fax announced, had now formally
decided just how and when it would send in its first men. And basically the news is not so good: An awful lot of them are coming, and they are coming very soon.

For the last few days a very small number of PLA men -- just over 100 -- have been allowed into Hong Kong, helping plan the arrival of the others. There have been strict rules about this first contingent: no guns, no uniforms outside the barracks, no bad behavior. And generally the rules have been observed. A pint of beer in a Wanchai bar sets a soldier back about a week's salary, so they've been keeping well away from the colony's notorious fleshpots.

But a week or so ago came an ugly little incident. A small detachment of
troops refused point-blank to stop for a customs inspection at the border,
saying words to the effect that they were the bosses now, and they weren't going to
take orders from some colonial pipsqueak, and that if he wanted them to open
their Chinese suitcases he could go forth and multiply. After a
day or so everything was allowed to settle down -- "language communications
problems" the government explained, limply -- but the affair left a bad taste
in everyone's mouth, with people here beginning to wonder if perhaps the
Chinese army wasn't going to start throwing its weight around once it
arrived in strength.

Well, now they are about to arrive in the strength that will give
them the power to be as high-handed as they like, and to throw about as much weight as they wish.

According to this afternoon's press release, a further advance
party -- this time of 509 soldiers, and this time with their guns -- is due to arrive in Hong Kong at 9 p.m. Monday, three hours before the British relinquish control. They will have 39 vehicles, and they will drive to three sets of barracks, preparing to begin their official garrison duties at midnight.

That is probably just what will happen, but the thought of armed soldiers of the Tiananmen Square variety wandering around in Hong Kong alongside
dignitaries from the entire world, together with a host of British princes and
governors and sundry other panjandrums, is more than a little unsettling. Only
three hours though, and then all the panjandrums fly off or sail away.

And it is then, with the British safely out the picture, that the
main Chinese force arrives. At 6 a.m. Tuesday, with China's sovereignty fully six hours old, a giant group of 4,000 fully armed and equipped PLA men and women will stream over the frontier, in waves of armored cars, ships and
helicopters. There will be 10 warships, six big helicopters, 21 armored cars
-- though there was, after Tiananmen Square, a specific request that they not
come in with tanks -- and a line of no fewer than 400 other vehicles.

By mid-morning the troops should have fanned out to key points all over the
territory. They will be advertising to the world that Hong Kong is henceforth
to remain secure, and securely under the authority of China; and they will be
advertising to the Hong Kong people that their masters are no longer
colonialists from across in London, but instead a crew of harsher
authoritarians from Beijing.

The move is a significant one, in that it represents the formal beginning of
the process of the re-education of the people of Hong Kong. For a long time,
the Chinese government has taken the view that Hong Kongers are an ornery lot,
not disposed to give the deference that is due to the might and majesty of
China and her rulers. That has to change, the Beijing rulers say. The 6
million who live and work in Hong Kong have to knuckle under, have to respect
the authority of their new masters. The soldiers -- specially trained to be
polite but firm -- are here to help them remember that.

Small wonder that, for a moment or two, the excited din of party noise
stilled, and one or two people gulped, a little nervously. The realities of
the handover are just what everyone does not want to think about while so good
a time is being had by so many. But a cold dawn is a-coming, and the soldiers
of the PLA, now trembling on the border, waiting to stream in, are an
ever-present reminder of that sobering fact.

By Simon Winchester

Simon Winchester is a contributing editor for Salon Wanderlust. He has previously written about Hong Kong, the Kurile Islands and China.

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