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."

A year later, the propaganda team of the Fourth Red Army was established and later admitted as a formal team within the Communist Party's military system. The team was responsible for PLA propaganda, and for providing entertainment such as singing and dancing for soldiers when there was no battle to fight as well as for writing and acting out drama.

Ever since, the Communist Party has allocated plentiful resources to its "entertainment army" units. During World War II, entertainment soldiers, regarded as "helpful in boosting morale," were given so much attention that most army units at the regiment level and above had their own drama clubs and art performer troupes.

The Party has been a stalwart source of support, but the Chinese public appears to question whether entertainment troupes have outlived their usefulness.

User @凯瑞曹 asked whether the function could be outsourced: "Have (the authorities) made a calculation? Is it appropriate to keep the entertainment army units or we should pay other professional troupes for performing for our soldiers?" User @包红旗空间 went further: " In peacetime, the sole value of keeping entertainment soldiers is for corruption!"

There is some truth to this assertion.

The PLA has not released details of its military spending, so there are no accurate statistics about PLA entertainment expenditures. The consensus guess is that the current scale of PLA entertainment troupes exceeds 10,000 people while the total cost of keeping the entertainment soldiers and army units of low operational capacity could amount to 10 billion RMB (about US $1.6 billion).

To make matter worse, the aforementioned disgruntlement extends beyond the public to soldiers in the barracks.

Commentator Feng Qingyang quoted a retired veteran complaining, "Servicemen are supposed to defend their country. Can they achieve this by singing? If [one] can become an officer just because [one] has a pretty face and can sing a few songs, what about those soldiers who devote themselves to their service during but encounter difficulties in getting a job after decommissioning?"

The PLA appeared to agree, at least several years ago. The 2006 White Paper on National Defense shows that China disarmed 20,000 soldiers, with a large proportion of them being entertainment soldiers. But such measures have not been mentioned again in successive white papers issued in 2008, 2010, and 2013.

To some, the PLA's effort to downsize its entertainment units is so slow as to merit ridicule. As user @任柯瑺 warned:

China now declares to the world: China adheres to a policy of no first use of entertainment army troupes at any time or under any circumstances, and has made the unequivocal commitment that it unconditionally will not use, or threaten to use, entertainment army troupes against non-entertainment army troupe states or entertainment army troupes free zones.

This post first appeared at Tea Leaf Nation, an Atlantic partner site.