Democrats have said that a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) mountain clean-up held on Saturday was unlawful.
Over 600 people from the local PLA garrison, the Chinese foreign ministry in Hong Kong, the China Liaison Office and state-owned enterprises helped clear fallen trees from the MacLehose Trail. The group included 400 soldiers in uniforms.
Access across the hiking trail had been limited owing to the destruction wrought by Super Typhoon Mangkhut last month.
It was the first such action by the Hong Kong garrison since the 1997 Handover. But Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung has said on Sunday that the public should not over-interpret the incident, as the soldiers were volunteering and the Hong Kong government did not request their help.
Matthew Cheung thanked the local garrison and said it has often volunteered in the city, such as making visits to elderly centres.
An article on the Liaison Office’s website said that the aim was to clear the trail ahead of a 100km Trailwalker race to be held later this month.
The office said it took eight hours to clear 65 locations from Pak Tam Chung in Sai Kung to Tuen Mun: “Hikers gave thumbs-up to the volunteers and showed their appreciation, as some residents asked for photos with the volunteers.”
But Alan Leong, Civic Party chair and a former lawmaker, said the action violated the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Garrisoning the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region – the mainland Chinese law regulating the garrison in Hong Kong.
Article 9 of the law stipulates that the garrison shall not interfere in the local affairs of Hong Kong, whilst Article 11 states that the garrison shall notify the local government in advance of any military activities, such as training exercises and manoeuvres, if the public interest is affected.
Leong also said the law stated that the Hong Kong garrison can only provide assistance to the city after it has received Hong Kong’s request and the central government’s approval: “It was because Hong Kong people were concerned that the local garrison may appear in the city in military uniform,” he said.
Leong said the local garrison’s action on Saturday did not follow the strict requirements of the law: “They cannot just do anything by saying they are volunteering.”
Democratic Party lawmaker Andrew Wan also said the action was not legal, as the clean-up should be a local matter.
“Why did the army conduct [the clean-up] and promote it when the government did not ask for help?” he said. “Were they trying to get Hong Kong people used to their appearance in the city without any reason?”
But Federation of Trade Unions lawmaker Michael Luk said it was “normal” for the army to participate in the clean-up, and said that it was appropriate for them to be in uniforms.
“The Hong Kong government should have requested assistance from the People’s Liberation Army a long time ago,” he said.