One of the puzzling things about Hong Kong is the widespread enthusiasm for foot drill, even in organisations for which it hardly seems relevant, like the Red Cross or the Auxiliary Medical Service.

No well-intentioned youth organisation is complete, it seems, without the formal ritual of a passing out parade, and the consequently necessary hours of practice in an arcane military art, which passed out of practical use some 150 years ago.

carrie lam police
Chief Executive Carrie Lam inspects 40 probationary inspectors and 176 recruit constables at the passing-out parade. File photo: GovHK.

This is a matter which people feel surprisingly strongly about. So I was not surprised to read that the Liaison Office had met some resistance to a recent campaign to persuade youth groups and others to switch to the “Chinese style of marching”.

This is apparently an obscure prong in the on-going de-Westernisation of Hong Kong. Our boys and girls are marching in a non-Chinese style! The horror!

Actually this approach incorporates a good deal of chauvinistic nonsense. There are three “styles of marching” available in the world, and none of them are particularly Chinese.

The one which is used in China but not in Hong Kong is technically known as the Stechstritt (literally “piercing step”) and is a German invention.

It is usually credited to, or blamed on if you wish, a colourful military character called Leopold I, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau, later known (to distinguish him from several sons who also became generals) as the Old Dessauer. Leopold married his childhood sweetheart in the teeth of family opposition and had ten children.

Leopold I, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau
Leopold I, Prince of Anhalt-Dessau. Photo: Wikicommons.

Leopold had a long career and by the end of it had a fine collection of historic names to drop: he was at the Battle of Blenheim with Marlborough, in Italy with Prince Eugene, defeated Charles XII of Sweden (who was heavily outnumbered at the time) in Germany and finished his career in the service of Frederick the Great.

A charming legend has it that before his last battle Leopold (a devout Lutheran) prayed: “O Lord God, let me not be disgraced in my old days. Or if Thou wilt not help me, do not help these scoundrels, but leave us to try it ourselves.”

Leaving such delights aside, Leopold’s lasting contribution to Prussian military culture was his work on drill. Foot drill was a matter of life and death on 18th century battlefields, where the infantry needed to move smoothly between lines (if under bombardment by artillery) squares (to resist cavalry) and columns (to move about).

Leopold adopted the Stechstritt because it made it easier for a large body of men, in different sizes, to cover the same distance with each step, and so keep whichever formation they were in. It involves the legs being kept straight, the leg being put forward swinging up before being plonked down with the gratifying sound of jackboot meeting concrete.

This is hard work and extreme versions take a lot of practice.  From Germany it spread to the large numbers of countries which sought to emulate Prussian military prowess, including Russia, whence comes this picture.

The Soviet army kept it up, and it now appears in all the armies of the former Communist world, and many other places, though not in Germany where it is associated with an unhappy period.

During World War II there was a lot of Allied propaganda alleging German militarism, and the “piercing step”, by its more familiar barrack room name as the “goose step”, was depicted as part of this.

George Orwell wrote that “the goose step is only found in countries where the people are too frightened to laugh at their military.”

The alternative used in Hong Kong does not seem to have a name of its own but it is shared by the North American, British and European militaries. The leg only becomes straight when the foot hits the ground, a more natural movement, but there is a lot more emphasis on the arms. For the sake of completeness we may also mention what is called the “high step”, in which the leg is raised before coming down, but with the knee bent. It looks like this:

So the choice before us is basically this. We can have the Prussian/Russian/Chinese look, as demonstrated below by a unit which seems to have attracted a lot of internet enthusiasm for some reason:

YouTube video

Or can have the British/European/American look as demonstrated below by our beloved Police Force. Note big arm swing and restrained height of feet.

the Hong Kong Police College
A passing-out parade at the Hong Kong Police College. Photo: GovHK.

And the truth of the matter is that it really doesn’t matter at all which is chosen, or even whether everyone chooses the same one. French military parades happily accommodate the French Foreign Legion, which marches at 88 paces a minute instead of everyone else’s 120. British parades include Highland regiments, who for some mysterious reason prefer 112. Many armies which use the goose step confine it to particular occasions or elite units.

From a practical point of view the spring from which all drill flows in Hong Kong is the police force. If they change to a Chinese style then all other uniformed groups will follow sooner or later. And if not, not.

The only other thing to say about this interesting but essentially trivial matter is that it is a textbook example of the sort of thing which should be no business at all of the Liaison Office. There is absolutely no reason, in the Basic Law or outside it, why this should be a matter for anyone but Hong Kong people.

No doubt the Liaison Office would say that they were only expressing an opinion.

This will not do. This year’s Liaison Office opinions have a disturbing habit of becoming next year’s government policy. You boys need to learn when to shut up.

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.