Whom Should the Chinese Army Serve—the Party or the State?

On the weakening of ideology in the PLA

On the weakening role of ideology in the PLA


Larry Downing/Reuters

As the 18th National People's Congress approaches, bringing with it a once-in-a-decade political reshuffle, China has been working harder than ever to smooth over a variety of sensitive matters, from questions ofTibetan independence to protests in Sichuan. Yet few might realize that China's People's Liberation Army -- a military commonly viewed as a staunch holder of the Party line -- is itself a controversial topic this time around. On Sina Weibo, China's Twitter, prominent academic and vice president of the Law School of China University of Political Science and Law (CUPL) He Bing (@ 何兵) touched a nerve with this post, retweeted over 12,000 times in less than 12 hours:

"I spoke with a comrade in the army. He said, these days ideological work is the hardest to perform. They used not to let soldiers use cell phones while allowing officers to use them; [but] the soldiers refused to obey. On what grounds? [they would ask]. Now, it's been decided they can use them on weekends, but in actuality most of the time they are almost openly used. Soldiers have fully-developed thinking skills before they enlist. For example, we teach them that the People's army must be loyal to the Party, because the Party represents the interests of the People. The soldiers say, 'Isn't it just easier to be loyal to the People directly? What's the use of being so roundabout?' Ai, so difficult!" [Chinese]

One user drew a connection between the seemingly anecdotal post and an issue that has made the rounds in Chinese media over the past few months: "Is this about the nationalization of the army?"

The People's Liberation Army (PLA) has always been a branch of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but China's state-run media outlets have been pushing back against calls to shift the army's allegiance from the Party to the state. It is unclear where these calls are coming from, but dissident media reported that Deputy Chief of Staff Zhang Qinsheng was suspended earlier this year for making the suggestion. Editorials in China's state-run media have declared the nationalization movement a plot by "domestic and foreign hostile forces." According to Dr. Michael S. Chase, writing for the Jamestown Foundation, such commentary and emphasis on the importance of a Party-led army "suggests [that] ensuring the PLA's loyalty to the Party is a preoccupation for Hu Jintao and other top leaders as the succession process unfolds."

Most of the 3,500-plus comments on the post lauded the PLA soldiers' independent spirits. One Weibo user remarked approvingly, "Those born in the 90's aren't duped so easily." Wrote another, "In the information age, the old methods are no longer effective." Though some questioned how it would be possible for the army to serve the "People" directly, very few voiced support for the CCP as the primary recipient of the Chinese army's allegiance. As one commenter put it, "These days, we love our country, but not our Party."

This is not the first time Professor He Bing has taken a public stance on a controversial issue. He has also spoken out on food safety, which concerns an increasing number of Chinese, most famously when he revealed the use of growth hormones on cows by Chinese dairy farmers. Yet he is not a marginalized dissident; on the contrary, he is a prominent and popular academic who continues to work and speak openly within China, and has even been featured in the state-run and Party-line Global Times. His post about the PLA has not been censored, nor has his Weibo account been deleted. With his frequent and provocative tweets, the educator Professor He appears to believe his own earlier words still ring true: "Facing the Internet, the traditional model for ideological education is powerless."

None of this means, of course, that China has decided to nationalize its army, nor does it show that censorship is history. Still, this post and the support it has garnered at least evinces a heightened belief among Chinese web users that it is worthwhile to voice their political opinions, noteworthy considering the Chinese government's demonstrated willingness to prosecute individuals for tweets and t-shirts.

This post was produced in collaboration with Tea Leaf Nation.