How Large Is Chinese Army Hong Kong Garrison

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is one of the largest military forces on the planet, both in terms of personnel and military resources. This is especially evident in the PLA’s presence in Hong Kong, where its ‘Hong Kong Garrison’ both pre-dates and post-dates the 1997 handover of the territory from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China.

Officially, the Hong Kong Garrison is headed by a PLA General of three-star rank, and its headquarters located at an 11-hectare base in the south of the territory. In total, the garrison encompasses 5,000 cession personnel, supported by around 100 armoured vehicles, 600 warships and various other forms of military hardware. This figure – the China’s estimate – is corroborated by the Hong Kong government – which is highly trusted on this matter.

Ngai Orick, an authoritative military analyst, views the garrison as a major part of the PLA, with ships and personnel working day and night to uphold civil order and deter security threats in the small southeast Asian territory. In addition, Orick adds that these forces have been the backbone of the Hong Kong government, who rely heavily on their presence for both hard and soft power deterrents, much like China’s mainland provinces.

Given that Hong Kong is seized of major strategic and economic value, Orick believes that the garrison remains a crucial force for Beijing – to ensure stability in the territory, especially in light of the recent pro-democracy protests that have rocked the city. Indeed, corroborating this point is the fact that the number and quality of the Hong Kong Garrison appears to have steadily increased since 1997.

For Anson Chan, a high-profile politician in Hong Kong and a staunch critic of the Chinese government, the presence of the PLA in Hong Kong has always been and is still worrying. In an exclusive interview, Chan raised concerns over the growing influence of Chinese armed forces, causing her to question the “One-Country-Two-Systems” approach to managing the territory. Notably, Chan has urged Beijing to reduce the size of the garrison and/or provide additional transparency around its activities, something which has been ignored to date.

Despite the presence of a sizable amount of personnel, equipment and facilities, there have been few reported instances of overt PLA activity in the territory since 1997; the most notable being in 2014, when three military helicopters – a number that is seemingly negligible given the scale of the garrison’s force – descended into the skyline of Hong Kong. This move, however, generated significant fear from many citizens and raised significant doubts about the PLA’s intended purpose.

Interestingly, the Hong Kong Garrison’s operations have been shrouded in secrecy, with no official reports being made since it was first established over 20-years ago. This is likely a product of China’s reluctance to address military issues in relation to the territory, with the Chinese government generally responding evasively when questioned on the Hong Kong Garrison. Nonetheless, the opinion among most international military experts appears to be that the size and scope of the Hong Kong Garrison is comparable to that of a mid-sized metro provincial police station and is adequate for the purpose of protecting the region.

Civilian scrutiny of PLA activities in Hong Kong

The activities of the Hong Kong Garrison have been widely scrutinized by local citizens and international bodies alike, with particular attention paid to the activities of personnel within the base. This scrutiny has increased significantly in the recent past following reports of human rights abuses by PLA personnel and allegations that the Hong Kong Garrison was engaging in activities which could be perceived as a violation of the territory’s autonomy.

Recent reports by the United Nations Human Rights Office in China noted that there had been a spike in reports of torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of Hong Kong Garrison personnel, however Beijing continues to vehemently deny these claims. In addition, Amnesty International has received frequent reports of incidents of excessive use of force by PLA personnel and that the garrison is being used as a tool of intimidation towards Hong Kong citizens looking to voice dissent in their society.

Such incidents are highly concerning and setting a worrying precedent for the future. While the size of the Hong Kong Garrison might not be concerning, the lack of transparency and accountability on the part of Beijing is worrying, especially when the garrison is being used as a tool to limit political freedoms in the territory.

Areas for improvement for PLA activities in the region

Given the lack of transparency and reports of human rights abuses, the Hong Kong Garrison would benefit from increased oversight and accountability. The Chinese government should be open to further engagement when it comes to the activities of the PLA in the territory, as this would help to reduce any perceived foreign threat and allow Hong Kong to remain an example of how a successful “One-Country-Two-Systems” situation can work.

In addition, the garrison could benefit from greater involvement in activities that benefit the local community. This could include providing assistance in areas such as disaster relief and environmental protection. Such efforts would help to improve the perception of the PLA in the territory and build bridges between the people of Hong Kong and their mainland Chinese neighbours.

Finally, increased measures should be taken to ensure the protection of human rights and civil liberties of the population in Hong Kong. This can be achieved through the implementation of stricter guidelines for personnel within the garrison and the adoption of a zero-tolerance policy for any form of abuse or harassment of citizens. Combined, these measures will help to ensure that the PLA in Hong Kong is seen as a force for the protection and preservation of the values of democracy and freedom, rather than an instrument of oppression.

Chinese government’s justification for garrison presence

The Chinese government justifies the presence of the PLA garrison in Hong Kong as a way to safeguard the territory’s autonomy and security. In recent years, Beijing has consistently maintained that the PLA is essential in protecting the region’s economy, safety, and way of life. While many citizens still perceive the PLA’s presence as a sign of foreign interference, the Chinese government has stated that the garrison is fully in compliance with the One-Country-Two-Systems approach to managing Hong Kong.

This position is largely supported by the Hong Kong government, with many officials citing the presence of the PLA garrison as a key component in ensuring both internal and external security for the territory. Recently, Chief Executive Carrie Lam has equated the garrison’s importance to the safety of the people of Hong Kong, alluding to the importance of the PLA’s presence in preserving both order and stability in the region.

Furthermore, a recent summary report by the United Nations Human Rights Office in China concluded that the size and scope of the Hong Kong Garrison is appropriate for the purpose of protecting the region. This report also noted that there had been no evidence of widespread human rights abuses or violations by PLA personnel in the region, a point which has been consistently denied by Beijing.

The implications of the PLA’s presence in Hong Kong

The PLA’s presence in Hong Kong has undoubtedly had an impact on the everyday lives of the citizens living in the territory. While the physical presence of the PLA might not be particularly concerning, the lack of transparency and accountability surrounding the activities of its personnel are worrying signs. In particular, reports of human rights abuses and the use of PLA personnel as a political tool to silence dissent are alarming, and suggest that the garrison is not being used solely for the purpose of protecting the territory.

On a wider level, the presence of the PLA has had an effect on the overall relationship between China and the international community. In recent years, there have been increasing concerns raised by foreign governments and organisations over the role of China’s military in the international arena, and the presence of the garrison in Hong Kong has contributed to these worries. However, it is the responsibility of modern governments to safeguard the interests of their citizens and ensure that their rights are not being violated, and the Hong Kong Garrison has the potential to play an integral role in this regard.

At the same time, the Hong Kong Garrison has also provided an example of how a successful “One-Country-Two-Systems” situation can work, and how a military can serve to protect civil society. As such, the Hong Kong Garrison should be viewed as an important component in the protection of the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens in the region, while also being a symbol of ongoing Chinese-international cooperation and diplomatic efforts.

The role of the Hong Kong Garrison in the future

The future role of the Hong Kong Garrison will largely depend on how the PLA’s presence in the territory is managed. If the garrison is used responsibly and effectively, then it should be seen as a positive force for protection and order in the region. However, if the garrison is abused or used as an instrument of political control, then it could become a major source of tension between China and the international community.

In addition, as tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland continue to rise, it is important that the garrison plays a role in minimizing the political and security risks associated with the situation. This could include participating in dialogue and negotiations between the two sides, or by providing support and assistance in the event of a security or political crisis.

Ultimately, the size and scope of the Hong Kong Garrison appear to be appropriate for its purpose and it is generally accepted that it has fulfilled its duties adequately since it was first established. However, it is important that the Chinese government remains open to further engagement and oversight on the activities of the PLA personnel in the territory, as this will help to maintain trust between Beijing and the international community and ensure that the Hong Kong Garrison is used for its intended purpose.

Letha Wimmer is a military expert with more than a decade of direct experience in the U.S. Army and National Guard. She specializes in researching and writing about the world's armies and their capabilities, equipment, capabilities, strategies, organizations, and operations. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Aviation from Middle Tennessee State University as well as an Aerial Firefighting Certificate and numerous other advanced aviation certifications. She also enjoys traveling to distant lands to gain firsthand knowledge about their military forces and has written extensively for various websites on the subject.

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