Hong Kong’s military-style youth groups rejected Chinese foot drills at an annual flag raising ceremony Friday despite pressure to change their marching traditions inherited from the British colonial era.

The groups had received requests from China’s liaison office in Hong Kong in recent weeks to change their foot drills to follow those used by the People’s Liberation Army, which has a garrison in the semi-autonomous city.

Members of a military-style youth group use the British style quick march as they take part in an annual flag raising ceremony in Hong Kong on May 4, 2018. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP.

It comes as Hong Kong’s freedoms are under increasing pressure from an assertive Beijing with authorities accused of trying to rewrite history.

As 14 groups dressed in their different uniforms gathered Friday morning on the harbourfront in Hong Kong, only one used the PLA style.

“We’ve been using British foot drills all this time. We don’t have any plan to change them for the time being,” said Colonel Matthew Wong of the Hong Kong Adventure Corps (HKAC), adding that they reflect the group’s traditions and cultural background.

HKAC was set up by some former staff of the Royal Hong Kong Regiment who had remained after Britain handed the city back to China in 1997.

Senior Boys’ Brigade drill instructor Alex Fong said members had “shown their concerns” over the requests.

Its foot drills originated in Scotland and have been used for almost six decades.

The May 4 event marks student-led anti-imperialist protests in China in 1919 which reflected a surge in Chinese nationalism.

Youth groups told AFP they had been invited to the liaison office and to a meeting at a restaurant with the event organiser to discuss changing their drill style for the ceremony. They were offered help with retraining.

Last month, several youth groups were also invited to a four-day PLA foot drill training session at one of its barracks.

Although HKAC keeps an open mind on learning new skills, Wong said the response had not be “enthusiastic”, with only 14 of HKAC’s 5000 members taking up the offer.

Youth members who attended the ceremony said it’s not up to them to decide whether or not to change the foot drills in the future. “We need to listen our Madame and Sir’s decision,” said Ms Ng, a Civil Aid Service Cadet Corps youth member, who had never learnt PLA foot drill.

The one group that stuck with the PLA foot drill Friday was the Hong Kong Army Cadets Association (HKACA), set up in 2015, a year after massive student-led pro-democracy rallies in Hong Kong and seen by some observers as a tool to get Beijing’s message across to young people.

But instead of using the PLA’s ceremonial “goose-step” marching which the legs are lifted to knee-height off the ground with the knees bent, they used PLA quick march which looks more “natural” and “relaxed”.

“As a Chinese, attending a flag-raising ceremony of the Chinese and the HKSAR flags, I feel proud,” said Ms Suen, who had joined HKACA two years ago.

Hong Kong’s government, loyal to Beijing, was this week reported to have erased all mention of a “handover of sovereignty” — in reference to the end of British rule in 1997 — from the website of its protocol division by the South China Morning Post.

One senior Beijing official has also publicly called for the city to change its colonial era street names.

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