A boy learns how to use a light machine gun under a soldier’s guidance. More than 40,000 people have visited the PLA barracks since it began opening its doors to the public.[Photo/China Daily]
As the 15th anniversary of the region’s return to the Chinese motherland approaches, our reporter meets the men and women of the local PLA garrison.
Standing in the shadow of two giant casinos, the People’s Liberation Army barracks in the Macao Special Administrative Region is a reminder that an oasis of discipline and duty is no place for those prone to taking risks.
As visitors from all over the world seek their fortunes around-the-clock, the troops housed in the 65,333-square-meter base on Taipa Island have left nothing to chance since Macao returned to the Chinese motherland on Dec 20, 1999.
“We are here to safeguard stability and prosperity, and serve as a key window for Macao residents to view the entire PLA,” Senior Colonel Wang Wen, the garrison commander, said, ahead of the 15th anniversary of Macao’s return.
The government of Macao may “when necessary” ask the central government to allow the garrison to assist in maintaining public order, or help with disaster relief.
The garrison is ready to serve and is fully equipped to tackle potential emergencies, including fire prevention and public health emergencies, Wang said.
However, the troops keep a low profile and are confined to barracks, where they train quietly, mindful that residents live nearby.
“We never interfere in the region’s governance or disturb the people, as required by the Basic Law－Macao’s mini-constitution－and Garrison Law,” said Wang, who was stationed at the PLA garrison in Hong Kong for eight years before being sent to Macao in July.
The garrison has bases in Macao and the neighboring city of Zhuhai in Guangdong province. When the soldiers arrived in Macao, the world’s most densely populated city, the lack of space became a major consideration.
The troops in the New Port barracks on the Macao Peninsula have to conduct their exercises on the base, such as quickly ascending about 20 flights of stairs or running around the perimeter of a building base dozens of times a day.
Students and soldiers compete in a tug-of-war competition during a 2013 summer camp organized by the PLA garrison.[Photo/China Daily]
Every dorm in the barracks is equipped with soundproofing equipment, and low-decibel loudspeakers ensure the early morning bugle call doesn’t disturb residents outside the barracks. Meanwhile, field training and annual troop rotations between the bases are conducted at night to minimize disruption to local transport, and live ammunition practice is only conducted in Zhuhai.
Although space is at a premium, that doesn’t stop the garrison from making room to involve residents in a range of activities.
More than 40,000 people have visited the barracks on the 27 occasions it has opened its doors to the public during the past decade. At these open houses, visitors can view the facilities and watch soldiers perform simulated combat procedures.
The open houses are immensely popular－Major Cui Shengming recalled that when he planned to give away free tickets for an open house at 8 am, he was surprised to hear that people had been lining up since 4 am.
The garrison has also organized 10 military summer camps for 1,200 local teenagers, and participated in public activities, such as planting more than 7,000 trees, donating 500,000 milliliters of blood, and visiting the elderly and universities.
Earlier this year, when the troops visited a local kindergarten for the first time, First Lieutenant Zhou Yiqi learned from the teachers that many of the children were so eager to meet the PLA soldiers that they skipped the daily noontime nap, and stared out of the windows as they waited for the troops to arrive.
After she’d played games, played music and danced with the children, Zhou found it difficult to say goodbye. “When I meet these kids, I feel motivated to do my job even better, just like the time I saw an elderly resident give us a thumbs-up while we were conducting field training at night,” she said.
Based on the successful experiences so far, the garrison will open up further and explore more ways to interact with local people, according to Wang.
Cui, who works in the garrison’s communication station, said: “They (the local people) want to know us better. We’ve learned a lot from the local people. We are proud to be a window and a bond between Macao and the Chinese mainland.”
Two soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army garrison in the Macao Special Administrative Region during a training session at the barracks.[Photo/China Daily]
Summer camps build bridges
A sophomore student at the University of Macao learned a valuable lesson in the bonds that unite the soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army and the people they serve, thanks to time spent with the troops stationed in Macao.
Chan Pui-san first participated in a summer camp organized by the PLA garrison in the city in 2010, and enjoyed her time so much that she was eager to repeat the experience over the next two years.
Although discipline was tough, Chan realized that PLA soldiers are just like other young Chinese people.
“They were strict during training, but once we got to know them and started chatting, they were just like our peers, with similar interests and ideas,” she said.
The 21-year-old preschool-education major is one of more than 1,200 Macao teenagers that have participated in the annual 10-day military camp since 2005.
Every year, about 100 students live with the troops at the garrison’s base in Zhuhai, a neighboring city in Guangdong province, and undertake grueling long-distance runs, wrestling bouts, and rifle shooting on the range.
Major Xu Hao, who was on base during three of the camps, said the students learned some new lessons in life, including a number of mundane ones, such as washing their dishes directly after meals.
Military life demands discipline and organization, and responsibilities cannot be ignored, irrespective of whether they are in the kitchen or on the parade ground, But the most valuable lesson is the transformation of attitudes, Xu said.
Chan’s time with the soldiers made her realize that when they are given a task, the troops undertake it quickly and efficiently. That attitude rubbed off on her, and her parents were delighted with the efficient way she handled household chores after attending the camp.
Although the students are not spared the rigors of barrack life, the camp is popular. However, a lack of space means that more applicants are rejected than those who are accepted.
Many of Chan’s classmates were so inspired by her experience that they enrolled in the camp. One is now a police officer.
When everyone is in the same camp, literally, bonds of friendship are formed. Xu, who works in the garrison’s communication station, said the troops were on the frontline of strengthening the bond between Macao’s younger generation and the Chinese mainland.
When asked about her cultural identity, Chan described herself as a person of Chinese-Macao heritage. “You can’t separate the Chinese mainland and Macao, because the city has returned home,” she said.
However, she said some small differences remain between the mainland and Macao, which was ruled by the Portuguese for 442 years.
For example, the different educational methods meant she found it difficult to get a job in the mainland after graduation.
But the close ties are obvious, both on Chan’s campus and in people’s daily lives. An increasing number of students and teachers from the mainland have joined Macao’s universities, and tourists from the mainland make a huge contribution to the local economy.
“My parents said social security in Macao is better than it was in the days before 1999. The mainland has become more accessible in recent years and now it’s much more convenient to visit our relatives and places there,” Chan said.
March 5, 1999:
The garrison is set up.
April 12, 1999:
A ceremony is held to mark the establishment of the garrison.
Dec 20, 1999:
The garrison enters Macao to take over its defense.
June 1, 2004:
A law to protect military facilities, promulgated by the government of the Macao Special Administrative Region, comes into effect.
Oct 3, 2004:
The garrison opens its Macao barracks to local residents for the first time.
Aug 4, 2005:
The first military summer camp is held at the garrison’s base in Zhuhai, Guangdong province.
The garrison is upgraded to deputy corps level.
April 28, 2013:
The garrison opens its barracks in Zhuhai to the public for the first time.
REGIMENTS AND RULES
It’s a sign of success when the legal affairs office is one of the busiest departments of the Macao PLA garrison. During a brief break for lunch, Colonel Wen Yufa, director of the office, was frequently interrupted by phone calls from soldiers asking for advice.
The calls were not about legal problems, though. Rather, they indicated the precautions taken and the care exercised by the troops, Wen said.
Garrison commander Wang Wen said the office is the first place soldiers turn whenever they come across anything that differs from their experience on the Chinese mainland, or when they hope to launch a project in Macao.
However, the troops don’t seek advice because they’re unfamiliar with the law. Instead, it’s a demonstration of the ongoing process of military legislation in Macao, and the soldiers’ adherence to the “One Country, Two Systems” policy.
In Hong Kong, the phrase “legal affairs” relates to the application of the law, but in Macao, it’s more about starting from scratch, because the departure of the Portuguese after 400 years left the troops in a legal and regulatory vacuum, according to Wen.