- - Thursday, July 17, 2014

Maj. Gen. Liu Xiaojun, the high-flying commanding officer of the People’s Liberation Army contingent in freewheeling Hong Kong, was abruptly relieved of command recently and reassigned to the Guangzhou Military Region in a new position believed to be mostly ceremonial.

His replacement is a Russian-trained PLA general known for his intimate knowledge of Hong Kong affairs.

Gen. Liu’s relief, two years earlier than the usual four-year stint, came two weeks after a mass demonstration in Hong Kong demanding democratic elections. Beijing offered no official explanations about the military move.

As the ultimate symbol of China’s sovereign control over the former British colony, the PLA’s Hong Kong Garrison commands about 6,000 troops.

The garrison is in charge of defending Hong Kong but not policing the city, and should not interfere in local administrative affairs in accordance with the Hong Kong Basic Law — the agreement between Great Britain and China that went into effect July 1, 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to China.

However, the PLA Hong Kong Garrison in recent years has promoted “patriotism” by expanding its public profile and outreach networks, which has unnerved some Hong Kong residents, a large number of whom have been political refugees from the communist country since 1949.

Because of this, the garrison has increasingly become a target of protests against China’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s freedoms. On occasion angry protesters have penetrated the barracks’ security lines and stormed garrison headquarters. Some have carried former British colonial flags, causing high-pitched rebukes from Beijing’s state media.

Yet the commanding general in Hong Kong is one of the most sensitive and powerful positions for the entire PLA establishment.

The position can serve as the most lucrative channel for smuggling, money laundering and other illicit actions within the PLA, as the recently exposed arrests of a long list of senior officials shows. One was the highest ranking military officer as recently as two years ago, former vice chairman of the Central Military Commission Gen. Xu Caihou, who was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party on July 1 and transferred to a secret tribunal for “economic crimes and corruption.”

The downfall of Gen. Xu, who was in charge of the PLA’s promotions and political affairs from 2004 to 2012, has triggered a widespread purge of his proteges and stalwarts across the PLA establishment, with the arrests and detention of more than a dozen senior officers alleged to have been Gen. Xu’s associates or partners in crime.

Speculation abounds as to whether Gen. Liu’s relief of command in Hong Kong is related to the ongoing investigation and purge within the PLA.

Maj. Gen. Tan Benhong, recently the commanding officer of the Hainan Military District, takes over as commander in Hong Kong. Gen. Tan once served as chief of staff for the PLA’s commanding officer in Hong Kong in 2007. He received military training in Russia, and is believed to be an adroit player in military politics.

AUSTRALIA, THE NEW BETE NOIR

China is once again resolutely indignant of another country friendly to Japan — this time, Australia.

Furious over Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s warm reception in Australia during a recent state visit, Beijing has lashed out against the South Pacific nation as a land where rascals and outlaws roamed.

Prime Minister Tony Abbott has reached out to Japan to forge stronger economic and defense ties. He has called Japan Australia’s “best friend in Asia.”

China is Australia’s largest trade partner. In his comments promoting friendship with Japan, Mr. Abbott also has stated that he respects good relations with China, which the Beijing-based Global Times said was “the most stupid balancing act” in a July 10 commentary written by a Chinese military commentator.

Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has vowed that Australia will “stand up to China to defend peace, liberal values and the rule of law.”

In response, China’s state-controlled media called Ms. Bishop “a complete fool.”

Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mmilesyu@gmail.com and @Yu_Miles.

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