Physical fitness and divergent political views appear to be the key obstacles that may discourage Hong Kong’s young people from serving in the nation’s military after it emerged authorities in Beijing are considering allowing residents to enlist.
While pro-establishment politicians welcomed the news on joining the military, revealed on Thursday, the opposition pan-democrats saw it as Beijing’s latest attempt to boost citizens’ national identity amid the rise of localist sentiments.
The development also came after China’s elite Tsinghua University announced last week – much to the concern of Hongkongers enrolled there – that it would require first-year students from the city and Macau to go through a mandatory three-week military course previously only compulsory for mainland Chinese students.
“Some Hong Kong compatriots have expressed their willingness to join the army and contribute to the national defence cause,” Ministry of National Defence spokesman Wu Qian said at a routine press briefing.
“We welcome the patriotic enthusiasm of the people of Hong Kong, and the relevant bodies are studying the arguments.”
He was responding to a reporter’s question about Tsinghua University’s move and whether it would pave the way for Hong Kong and Macau residents to be allowed to join the army voluntarily.
Wu did not comment directly on the university’s policy change but said that, since returning to Chinese rule in 1997, Hongkongers had developed a “deeper understanding and knowledge” of the country and its military.
Pro-Beijing parties and politicians in Hong Kong frequently raise the possibilities of residents joining the military. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong conducted a survey last month revealing that about half of respondents were willing to enlist.
Party veteran Ip Kwok-him, a local delegate to the National People’s Congress, said permitting Hongkongers to do so would improve their sense of national identity, as well as knowledge of the country.
“Young people would benefit a lot from military training as it would teach them the importance of discipline and social responsibility,” he said.
Hong Kong has witnessed a rise of localist or even separatist sentiments since the pro-democracy Occupy movement in 2014, where a growing number of young people want to steer clear of China.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Au Nok-hin described Beijing’s move as an attempt to boost Hongkongers’ national identity and accelerate the integration between Hong Kong and the mainland.
But Au said the authorities must not make it mandatory for Hongkongers to serve in the national military, citing Article 14 of the Basic Law, which stipulates the central government is responsible for the defence of Hong Kong.
Hongkongers do not have to serve in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and there is no policy in place for them to take up military service voluntarily.
A PLA garrison has been stationed in Hong Kong for the past 21 years, but it is not allowed to interfere in the city’s affairs.
According to a University of Hong Kong poll, 50.5 per cent of Hongkongers are satisfied with the performance of the PLA Hong Kong garrison, 14.3 percentage points more than that of the figures in 1997.
Two young female students whom the Post talked to described the latest move as a good thing though they had no plans to join, citing physical agility as their concerns.
Hongkonger Natalie Lau, 22, said she dropped her fantasy of “being a cool soldier” after a former serviceman told her how hard military training was.
“I think most Hong Kong youngsters couldn’t stand the drills even if the application was open to us,” Lau said.
Charles Li, a final-year student of international relations at Peking University, welcomed the possibility of opening military recruitment to Hong Kong residents. “At least now, there can be a chance for interested Hongkongers,” he said.
But pro-democracy student Wilson Li Chung-chak, 21, had absolutely no interest in joining the military.
“Apparently Beijing has wanted more young Hongkongers to identify themselves as Chinese,” Li said.
“But how would we, who are critical of the Chinese government, join [the army] and be part of the state machine?”
According to the PLA website for conscription, the military is looking for applicants aged 17 to 24 years old. Male applicants should be taller than 160cm, while female should be at least 158cm.
Applicants who join the military on a voluntary basis usually have to serve for two years.
Additional reporting by Xinqi Su