In 1841, the Royal Navy, upon persuasion by a group of traders eager to foist their narcotic wares on China and thereby close Britain’s trade gap with the Middle Kingdom, took control of a sparsely inhabited black rock off the South China coast. They called it Hong Kong, after the Cantonese name for the village where they embarked, meaning “fragrant harbour”.
The outpost became an unlikely success, giving a foothold to traders such as Thomas Dent, William Jardine and James Matheson – each of them glorified buccaneers – to peddle opium in China, an enterprise that was underpinned by wars prosecuted by the British and its allies aimed at bringing the resistant Chinese to heel.
After the second of these wars in 1860, the British added the peninsula of Kowloon across the harbour to its possessions, and in 1898, took out a 99-year lease on a much larger parcel of land, which, though already inhabited for thousands of years, became known as the New Territories, and never lost that moniker.
The military would soon take a back seat to mercantile concerns but the army left its mark almost everywhere in Hong Kong.
Military engineering chiselled away at the topography of the territory. The escarpments, glacis, and runnels that are dotted around the mountainous terrain, and which safely channel away the typhoon floodwaters, have an unmistakably military cast.
The old airport at Kai Tak on the eastern end of Kowloon was a military enterprise, though developed mainly not by the British but by the occupying Japanese between 1941 and 1945.
There was an occasional flexing of military muscle to remind the commercial world what was making its continuing existence in the territory possible.
Sometime in the 1860s an officious naval officer new to the city took exception to Jardine Matheson’s practice of firing a cannon from its godowns to greet its incoming ships. The jobsworth came down strong on JM, ruling that if it wanted to play at soldiers, it should fire the noon-day gun every day, a tradition that still continues, and which was immortalised by Noël Coward in “Mad Dogs and Englishmen”.
Though strategically important, Hong Kong was for long untouched by conflict after the Second Opium War ended in 1860.
The army were used in 1899 to suppress an uprising by native Chinese in the New Territories town of Tai Po, who weren’t thrilled to be annexed by a foreign power, but for most of peacetime, even during the pro-communist riots of July 1967, which claimed 52 lives, it was the Hong Kong police that imposed security.
The one time there was a serious military threat – the Japanese invasion of December 1941 – the city’s defences crumpled. The so-called Gin Drinker’s Line across the Lion Rock in Kowloon was supposed to keep potential invaders at bay for up to three months; instead it lived up to its colourful name and the Japanese rolled over it, though a ragtag coalition of British, Canadian and colonial Chinese forces did put up a spirited resistance at Victoria Harbour that held out for three weeks.
Hong Kong these days has an air of a demilitarised zone. Flagstaff House, the city’s oldest existing building, served as the residence of the military commander until 1978 and now houses a teaware museum; the nearby former explosives magazine is an art gallery. The former Army Stadium, situated on the pre-1898 boundary between Kowloon and China, is now the city’s most used football arena. There are everyday glimmers of the territory’s past as a military outpost: the St John of God ambulance workers at sporting events are kitted out in khaki, for example.
The People’s Liberation Army has a presence in Hong Kong – its headquarters is a relatively low building that nestles among the high-rises at Admiralty – but it is confined to barracks, due to an agreement between the British and Deng Xiaoping following the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Order is maintained by the police, as was the case during the Umbrella Movement protests in autumn 2014. People do happen to mysteriously disappear and wind up in custody on the mainland, such as the five Causeway booksellers in late 2015 or the mainland tycoon Xiao Jianhua, abducted from his Hong Kong hotel on the eve of Chinese New Year last January, but the troops are not needed for this.
In Hong Kong, Beijing rule is assured more by a largely compliant media and a local elite that scolds those who argue too strongly about such trifling matters as human rights and universal suffrage.
Though there are occasional reminders proffered about the military forces lurking behind closed doors – shortly before the recent 20th anniversary of the handover the head of the People’s Liberation Army’s southern theatre command stated that the army’s presence in Hong Kong was not “merely symbolic”.
Few Hongkongers would, however, have missed the symbolism of Xi Jinping’s subsequent visit to the army’s Shek Kong Barracks, at which he inspected 20 battalions, up from the 15 that Hu Jintao observed in 2012.
Originally published in The Irish Times