Boots on the ground


When China was hit by catastrophic floods in 1998, about 4,000 were killed in the Yangtze basin. However the disaster proved a seminal moment for rebuilding the Chinese military’s image.

Any previous blots on the People’s Liberation Army’s reputation were erased by the blanket coverage of the PLA’s heroic acts on state TV and in newspapers: nearly 100,000 soldiers raced to plug breached dikes with sandbags and sometimes did so with their own bodies by standing up to their necks in swollen rivers.

PLA commanders in Macau might have hoped for a similar reputational boost after Macau’s leader Fernando Chui requested the army’s assistance as the gambling haven was hit last week by the worst typhoon in 50 years. This was also the first time that the PLA garrison was sent into action in Macau (in Hong Kong any mobilisation of the army has long been deemed detrimental to public morale, with the PLA confined to barracks since 1997).

Some 1,000 troops were mobilised but their disaster-relief efforts were not exactly akin to the PR coup seen in 1998. There have been no dramatic rescue scenes nor other acts of sacrifice. Instead, the soldiers were given orders to shovel mounds of trash and fallen trees cluttering public spaces.

The PLA’s maiden mission has left some in Macau with mixed feelings. Was it necessary to call on the PLA just to clean the streets, it’s been asked. “Soldiers may have a lot of experience in disaster zone response but less so in picking up trash and sawing trees,” a Macau legislator wrote on his Facebook account, which swiftly stoked heated debate in the comment section. Some agreed that Macanese leader Chui had resorted to “slaughtering a chicken with a meat cleaver”, although many said the PLA’s clean-up contribution should still be appreciated.

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