The vanguard of the Chinese army’s future garrison rolled into Hong Kong on Monday, a vivid reminder that Britain’s rule over its last Asian colony is ending.
Led by Maj. Gen. Zhou Borong, a deputy commander of the future garrison, the 40 unarmed soldiers drove onto British soil at the Lok Ma Chau border checkpoint. They are to prepare 14 bases for up to 10,000 troops who will replace the British garrison on July 1.
The arrival fell on the birthday of Queen Elizabeth II, who was honored for the last time in Hong Kong with a 21-gun salute by a royal navy warship shortly before the Chinese arrived. It also came on the eve of British troops’ last military exercise in the colony before handing over control.
Except for visits by the future commander of the Chinese garrison, it was the first time the People’s Liberation Army has set foot in the colony.
Gov. Chris Patten reassured Hong Kong residents that the soldiers will obey the colony’s laws, saying they are “conducting themselves, I think, in a sensible, low-profile way.”
In a brief ceremony at the Prince of Wales Barracks, British military headquarters, the generals pledged to work together for a smooth change of sovereignty.
“This is a historic moment for both British and Chinese armed forces,” said Maj. Gen. Bryan Dutton, commander of the British garrison.
The convoy of trucks, vans and limousines left the neighboring Chinese city of Shenzhen to the tune of a marching song and an exhortation from the future garrison commander, Maj. Gen. Liu Zhenwu, “to convey a good image of the People’s Liberation Army as ethical troops.”
Each vehicle, bearing Hong Kong and Chinese license plates, was joined by a British soldier for the drive across the New Territories, through a tunnel under the busy harbor and on to the barracks.