How Chinese Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Their Military Again

August 8, 2016 /ChinaFile

Every evening, as regular and obstreperous as a rooster, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers sing from the barracks outside my Beijing home, a chorus of teenage troops reminding the neighborhood when it’s dinner time:

“Unity is strength, unity is strength,
The strength is iron, the strength is steel,
It’s harder than iron, stronger than steel.
Open fire at Fascism and Imperialism
And eliminate all undemocratic systems!”

The lyrics to “Unity is Strength” might sound a little unwieldy on paper, even a touch threatening. Yet the melody has an upbeat, rousing feel, especially when belted out with the full-throated enthusiasm of youngsters singing for their supper. Such is the order of army life—first you praise, then you eat. But their nightly routine is a reminder of the human reality behind the stentorian militarism that Beijing has been propagating over the South China Sea.

This week’s Chinese Workers and Farmers Red Army Day marks the 89th anniversary of the founding of the PLA, originally envisaged by Communist strongman and People’s Republic founder Mao Zedong as a military Party wing “for carrying out the political tasks of the revolution.” Mao’s volunteer guerrillas spent as much time digging wells, building dams, or bringing in harvests as they did governing newly captured territories or, later, defending the fledgling republic from what he called “tigers and wolves.” Now, self-styled “commander-in-chief” President Xi Jinping—who aspires to cull the PLA’s brass of decades of corruption, transforming its bloated and ill-disciplined ranks into a modern, high-tech force capable of projecting Chinese military power across the Asia-Pacific, and perhaps beyond—will need to draw on the army’s role as a symbol of national prestige.

The broad support that the military now enjoys among ordinary Chinese is something few would have predicted after the PLA’s notorious crackdowns on protesters near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Much of the genuine good will that existed between the people and their army ended almost overnight on June 4, 1989, when the ruling Politburo ordered generals to end months of peaceful pro-democracy protests by sending in troops with tanks, machine guns, and flamethrowers. The PLA’s remarkable rehabilitation since that bloody era is no simple accident of collective amnesia, although that has certainly played a role. It is the result of specific government policy, guided by the twin hands of censorship and propaganda, to mold a singular role for the military in Chinese society.

The PLA never wished to see its role switch from patriotic protectors to butchers. Resistance toward the use of force against the 1989 protesters was stiff: Deng Xiaoping, China’s then-paramount leader, is said to have personally lobbied commanders from all seven military regions, some of whose misgivings were personal—their children were among the demonstrators—as well as political. Few soldiers relish having to suppress their own people. And many feared the damage the PLA’s standing would suffer.

Even before the order to impose martial law, locals units had tactically withdrawn from Beijing, after meeting mild resistance and persuasion tactics from ordinary residents. Thousands of soldiers were then forced to undergo “re-education,” which included speeches by Deng, to convince them armed suppression was required; other local units, such as the 28th Army and 116th division, simply refused to comply with the order to retake the square “at any cost.” One senior leader, the 38th Group’s Major-General Xu Qinxian, said he “would rather be beheaded than be a criminal in the eyes of history.” A petition circulating in May 1989, signed by senior commanders, stated plainly: “The people’s military belongs to the people, and cannot oppose the people,” echoing the late Mao’s remarks that “Without a people’s army, the people have nothing.” Read more…

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