Who Are China's 'Entertainment Soldiers'? And Why Are People Mad at Them?

From providing sex to higher officials to corruption and rape accusations, this People Liberation Army "special unit" has suddenly elicited deep concern.
A retired soldier of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) plays a flute at a farewell ceremony near Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. (Reuters)

China's "entertainment soldiers," or wen yi bing, are back in the news.

On August 7, a 14-year-old boy was found listed as staff on the personnel schedule of a local government-affiliated organization in Henan province in central China. When the public began to investigate the designation, the organization chief explained that the boy was specially admitted into the army as an entertainment soldier.

Earlier this year, Li Tianyi -- the son of two well-known Chinese singers affiliated with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) who enjoy treatment equivalent to that of high-ranking officers -- was arrested by Beijing police and accused along with four others of gang raping a young woman in Beijing.

While the accusation remains unproven, it is enough to explain the mounting resentment against Chinese entertainment soldiers. It also may explain why, when South Korea announced the "death" of its 16-year-old "celebrity army" system last month, some Chinese paid more attention to the news than Koreans did. Han Xudong, professor at PLA National Defence [sic] University, was undoubtedly one of them.

On July 25, Han published a commentary on Global Times, a newspaper that largely trumpets the views of the Chinese Communist Party, arguing that "the existence of entertainment soldiers is necessary and valuable."

Han's views, while supported by some, also faced criticism and rebuttal from Chinese people. From breaking everyday rules, to allegedly providing sex for higher officials, to possible corruption, the reputation of Chinese entertainment soldiers seems to be falling by the day. On Sina Weibo, user @语笑嫣然great mocked,

Entertainment soldiers are necessary because first, they sing eulogistic songs and praise for authorities' conduct, presenting a false picture of peace and prosperity, and second, they entertain senior officers. Tax-payers are obliged to raise the army; the army, in return, is obliged to provide for military prostitutes.

With all of the chatter surrounding China's "entertainment soldiers," it's worth asking: what are they?

In fact, there is no such thing as an "entertainment soldier," at least not in official documents or PLA regulations. Authorities are more likely to refer to such personnel as "literary, art, and sport performers in the army."

The word "soldier" is not entirely correct either. In China, both on-duty and reserve soldiers can be categorized into two types: army officers and civil officers. The former are required to undergo military training, and are subject to being sent to the battlefield in wartime. By contrast, the civil officer corps, to which most of the entertainment "soldiers" belong, do not attain any military rank.

The PLA's penchant for cultivating and promoting literature and art work dates as early as 1927. When Chairman Mao was leading his Autumn Harvest Uprising, he ordered, "Putting on art performances is one of the missions for committees of regiments, battalions and companies at each level."

Lotus Yuen is a Beijing-based writer and editorial intern at Ifeng.com. She has written for Southern Metropolis Daily, New Business Magazine, and Hong Kong Independent Media.

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