PLA forces should be sent to Hong Kong only in war or if Legco approves role in maintaining public order or disaster relief, according to declassified files in London

Gary Cheung

The British government urged Beijing in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown to send the People’s Liberation Army to Hong Kong “only in time of war” after the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997, according to newly declassified files in London.

Under a British proposal, the post-handover government would have had to seek the Legislative Council’s approval before asking Beijing for the help of the PLA’s Hong Kong garrison for the maintenance of public order and disaster relief.

It was among a number of suggested amendments to the second draft of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution. The British government believed it would help restore the confidence of Hongkongers following the June 4 crackdown, in which the PLA was sent into Beijing to suppress pro-democracy protests.

An “overall critique” of the Basic Law draft, released in February 1989, said there was great concern about the stationing of PLA troops in Hong Kong. The document, which covered proposals for amending a number of draft clauses, was sent from the Hong Kong government to Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office on October 26, 1989.

The Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 caused great concern in Hong Kong. Photo: AP

It suggested revising Article 14, which empowered Beijing to station troops in the city after 1997, in such a way that “military forces may be sent by the Central People’s Government to [Hong Kong] only in time of war”.

It also proposed adding the sentence that the Hong Kong government, “may, if it considers it necessary to do so and if the Legislative Council approves, ask the Central People’s Government for the assistance of its military forces in the maintenance of public order and in disaster relief and such forces may respond to the extent requested by the HKSAR government” to the article.

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Deployment of the PLA was of “immense public concern consequent to the June 4 event” and the changes would greatly help restore the confidence of Hong Kong people, the document said.

Article 14 stipulated that “military forces sent by the Central People’s Government to be stationed in Hong Kong for defence shall not interfere in the local affairs of the region. The government of the HKSAR may, in times of need, ask the Central People’s Government for assistance from the garrison in the maintenance of public order and in disaster relief”.

The records, which were meant to be sealed until January 2049, were declassified two weeks ago following a freedom of information request from the Post.

An excerpt from the document.

The document said the proposals had been raised with the Chinese side at a meeting of the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group in London in September 1989, when transitional arrangements for Hong Kong’s handover were discussed.

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At the time, the Post reported that Beijing rejected the British side’s suggestion that PLA troops must not be stationed in Hong Kong.

On April 4, 1990, the National People’s Congress endorsed the final version of the Basic Law after a five-year drafting process. Article 14 states: “The government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region may, when necessary, ask the Central People’s Government for help from the garrison in the maintenance of public order and in disaster relief.”

The issue of the PLA garrison’s role in Hong Kong recently resurfaced in light of the months-long anti-government protests in the city.

Defence ministry spokesman Wu Qian said in July that PLA troops could be deployed to Hong Kong to maintain social order at the request of the government, sparking concerns that the garrison could be mobilised to quell the increasingly violent protests.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) barracks in Jordan. Photo: Sam Tsang

Meanwhile, the newly released records show a senior Chinese official sought the Hong Kong government’s help to rein in electronic media in their reports about the mainland.

During a meeting in Hong Kong on October 21, 1989, Zheng Weirong, a Chinese representative of the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group, told then director of administration Donald Tsang Yam-kuen of “the irritation the Hong Kong media had continued to cause his elderly leaders in Peking [Beijing]”.

According to a note written by Tsang, Zheng said there were instances of “wildly sensational and biased reporting” and this militated against normalisation of relations between Hong Kong and the mainland following the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Tsang went on to become financial secretary in 1995 and was elected chief executive in 2005.

“[Zheng said] Could the Hong Kong government impress on the local TV and radio stations to maintain a greater measure of balance in news reporting and editorials?” Tsang wrote.

“Zheng realised this was a sensitive matter, but he believed that the [Hong Kong government] had ways to exert effective influence if it were minded to do so!”

The record does not show Tsang’s response.

This article PLA forces should be sent to Hong Kong only in war or if Legco approves role in maintaining public order or disaster relief, according to declassified files in London first appeared on South China Morning Post

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