Chinese soldiers are allowed to take part in voluntary activities outside of their garrison without consulting or notifying the Hong Kong government, according to the city’s top security minister.
Secretary for Security John Lee told lawmakers on Wednesday that there is no law requiring the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Hong Kong Garrison to seek the government’s approval before conducting “charitable activities.”
Lee added that the government did not keep detailed records or statistics on the soldiers’ activities, though he said it was grateful for their “solid yet low key contributions.”
Around 400 Chinese soldiers participated in clean-up efforts after super typhoon Mangkhut, which hit Hong Kong in September. The soldiers, dressed in military uniform, were photographed removing fallen branches from a hiking trail.
It was the first such action by the Hong Kong garrison since the 1997 Handover. Democrats have criticised the action as unlawful, saying that it violated the Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Garrisoning of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region – a local legislation commonly known as the Garrison Law.
At the time, Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung said that the public should not “over-interpret” the garrison’s move.
Article 9 of the Garrison Law states that the garrison shall not interfere in the local affairs of Hong Kong, whilst Article 11 states the garrison shall notify the local government in advance of any military activities that would affect the public interest.
The Garrison Law also states that the Hong Kong government could ask the PLA for help in maintaining public order and in disaster relief, though this has never happened since the 1997 Handover.
Unqualified to manage soldiers
On Wednesday, lawmaker Ray Chan asked Lee whether the government will tell soldiers not to dress in their uniforms when doing charity work. Chan also suggested setting up a mechanism to notify the public when uniformed soldiers would venture outside the garrison.
Lee replied that Chan may not represent the public’s view, since Lee said he saw Hongkongers thanking soldiers for their work.
“How do we manage the soldiers? Neither of us are qualified to say, because you are not a soldier and I am not a soldier,” Lee added.
On the topic of military uniforms, Lee said it was up to the garrison to decide how soldiers would dress.
“Wearing uniform to attend public events will not only enhance the pride and commitment of the members of the Hong Kong Garrison it will also enable public understanding of the Hong Kong Garrison,” he said.
Pro-democracy camp convener Claudia Mo asked Lee to define “charitable” events that the garrison could join, but Lee said it was a matter of common sense.
He said that the garrison has taken part in tree planting, blood donation, elderly home and kindergarten visits, as well as cultural performances – all of which were done on a voluntary basis or by invitation.
“I have never heard of people stopping others from taking part in charitable activities. Hong Kong encourages people to be volunteers. Stopping people from being volunteers, it’s unthinkable,” Lee said.