Jackie really didn’t sign up for it.
The college student decided to attend the inauguration ceremony for the brand new Hong Kong Army Cadet Association on Sunday, Jan. 18 because the event organizers promised to give attendees a set of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) No. 7 uniform.
“Why would a youth army cadet corps be issued a full PLA uniform?” thought the student, who used the alias “Jackie” in an interview with Hong Kong news website Stand News.
Jackie, an alumni of an annual military summer camp co-organized by civil society group Concentrated Efforts Resource Center (CERC), the Hong Kong Education Bureau and the PLA garrison in the city, decided to indulge his curiosity.
After signing up with a friend and donning his fresh No. 7 uniform, Jackie went for the Army Cadet Association’s launch event, which was held in the PLA’s Ngong Shuen Chau naval base on Stonecutters Island.
Before the ceremony began, CERC members said that they were not attempting a recruitment drive for the new uniformed group, and summer military camp alumni do not count as youth cadet members.
During the proceedings, however, an announcer declared that the 300 or so attendees are all members of the Hong Kong Army Cadet Association.
“Upon hearing that, I was dumbstruck,” said Jackie.
The CERC’s subterfuge adds to the intrigue of the youth cadet group’s hushed up inauguration.
While prominent dignitaries—Hong Kong leader Leung Chun-ying and his wife Regina Tong; Central Government liaison office director Zhang Xiaoming; Education Secretary Eddie Ng; Youth Commission chairman Bunny Chan; Security Secretary Lai Tung-kwok—graced the occasion, only a handful of pro-Beijing media—newspaper Wen Wei Po and broadcaster China Central Television—were invited to cover the event.
Other Hong Kong media, who were turned away for not having an invite, had to interview a Wen Wei Po reporter after the event to figure out who’s who in the uniformed group, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP).
The Army Cadet Association, which seeks to enlighten Hong Kong youths about their “responsibilities and obligations as Chinese citizens,” is headed by Regina Tong. Bunny Chan is the group’s chairman. The other dignitaries serve as “honorary patrons.”
Tung Chee-hwa, Hong Kong’s former leader, is reportedly the group’s honorary president, while his wife, Betty Tung, is the honorary adviser. Mrs Tung founded CERC in 1998.
Any Hong Kong resident age 6 and above can joint the cadet corps.
At the ceremony, the group’s leaders, dressed up in Jackie’s PLA uniform, supposedly led the new cadets in swearing an oath to “build up Hong Kong” and “serve the motherland.”
Hongkongers have since criticized the Army Cadet Association’s ceremony and denounced the group for what they think is the actual reason for its founding.
Sham Yee-lan, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, says that the media ban is counter-intuitive given the presence of important public figures and “high public interest.”
“It will only make people wonder if the association has secrets,” said Sham, according to SCMP.
Citing the cadet oath, Civic Party lawmaker Kenneth Chan accused the association for trying to “indoctrinate” youths in patriotism, local broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) reports, echoing the sentiment of concerned Hongkongers.
Chan also believes that Beijing is behind the cadet corps because the central government liaison office and the PLA are tied up with the association.
In response, Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing, who attended Sunday’s ceremony, said that it is “normal” for uniformed groups to pledge themselves to “oblige to responsibilities as citizens of their motherland.”
Pro-establishment lawmaker Regina Ip added in a Facebook post that people who claim the association will “brainwash” Hong Kong’s youths are “overly sensitive” because the cadets will be getting more “physical training”—”Chinese-style military marching” for instance—than “political education.”
But Kenneth Chan has a more serious allegation.
Speaking to RTHK on Monday, Chan says that the Army Cadet Association violates Hong Kong’s Garrison Law, which bans the PLA, and by extension, the Army Cadet Association, from participating in community organizations. He also criticized Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying for backing the association, and says Leung could face legal action.
Because the uniformed group can get involved in the local society, Hong Kong residents told pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, it will breach Article 14 of the Basic Law—Hong Kong’s governing document—which states that the PLA “shall not interfere in the local affairs of the region.”
The debate over the Army Cadet Association’s establishment will likely drag on for a while, but at least one “member” wants out.
After the ceremony, Jackie and other “cadets” was asked to return their shoulder patches, which bore the group’s insignia.
Although some “cadets” grumbled about it—plenty of them only showed up to claim the uniform as a souvenir—Jackie had no complaints.
“I never want to be associated with the PLA,” he said.