- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2004

HONG KONG — China’s military staged its first parade in Hong Kong yesterday, with 3,000 soldiers marching crisply in formation along with armored vehicles and helicopters in a display of Beijing’s military might in the territory.

Chinese officials say the parade was aimed at strengthening Hong Kong’s relations with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and boosting patriotism in the former British colony.

But some saw it as a Beijing reminder of who’s in charge amid tensions over the expected victory of pro-democracy candidates in September elections.

The parade “displays the army’s strength and determination to maintain Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability,” said Wang Jitang, commander of the PLA’s Hong Kong garrison.

The army invited pro-democracy lawmakers to the event, held on the outskirts of town. Yeung Sum, Hong Kong’s top opposition-party leader, watched the parade with eight other Democratic Party lawmakers.

“They are very well-trained and disciplined and leave us with a lasting impression,” he said.

China has long viewed pro-democracy politicians as troublemakers and has barred some from entering the mainland, so the invitation was presented as an attempt to build bridges.

But the goodwill gesture came with a barb, as opposition figures stood at attention as the PLA marched past. Many in Hong Kong are suspicious of the Chinese military, remembering the use of tanks and troops against Beijing’s Tiananmen Square pro-democracy movement on June 4, 1989. Activists hold annual candlelight vigils to mark the deaths of hundreds — if not thousands — of unarmed people at Tiananmen.

The PLA has been here since Hong Kong’s 1997 return to China, but its troops usually stay in their barracks and keep an extremely low profile.

The parade generated intense interest. Despite sweltering heat, cable TV reported that there were about 27,000 spectators.

About 3,000 soldiers wearing the army’s signature green uniforms and carrying rifles marched crisply in formation, escorted by armored vehicles and helicopters in the parade marking the 77th anniversary of the PLA, which won control of mainland China for Mao Tse-tung’s Communists during civil war in 1949.

Mr. Yeung, the pro-democracy leader, said he didn’t see the invitation to the march as a breakthrough in Beijing’s relations with Hong Kong’s opposition.

“This is just a ceremony and not real communication,” he said, adding that the lawmakers didn’t have a chance to talk with mainland officials at the event.

He said he hoped the opposition can visit Beijing and discuss democracy with leaders after September’s legislative elections, in which people will directly choose half of 60 lawmakers.

The voters are expected to side overwhelmingly with anti-government and pro-democracy candidates, which could spell political trouble for Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.

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