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How Chinese Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Their Military Again

The P.L.A. Has Emerged from the Darkness of 1989 to Reclaim the Hearts of the Masses

Every evening, as regular and obstreperous as a rooster, the People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) 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 P.L.A., 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 P.L.A.’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 P.L.A.’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 P.L.A.’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 P.L.A. 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 P.L.A.’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.”

The fallout was as bad as the generals had feared. After 1989, “The army suffered a disconcerting collapse in its popular standing, especially in Beijing,” Rowan Callick noted in The Party Forever: Inside China’s Modern Communist Elite. Few now boast of the medals they won that night; even 27 years later, the period is considered such a stain that it doesn’t appear in any serving officer’s biography. As one soldier told Radio Free Asia, those involved afterward had their files “rewritten… our unit number, our duties, were all changed in the records, so that we couldn’t be connected to the incident.”

Rebranding the P.L.A. wouldn’t simply be a matter of expunging misdeeds from the collective consciousness. Having bared its teeth in Tiananmen, both the Party and P.L.A. needed a friendly makeover, along with a new foreign enemy—or better still, an old one. In 1991, the state introduced “patriotic education” to Chinese classrooms, casting the previous 150 years as a century of “national humiliation” at the hands of international imperialists—the wartime atrocities of the Japanese were particularly emphasized—followed in 1949 by decades of uninterrupted rejuvenation and unity, engineered solely by the Party and defended by its military arm. The new curriculum would replace, in all but name, the socialist bedrock of the Party’s legitimacy with its economic performance and defense of the motherland, while a resurgent nationalism provided the coalescing force.

Campaigns lauding the likes of Lei Feng, the semi-apocryphal Maoist soldier and model worker, who died young when a telegraph pole fell on his head, returned. And students who progressed to college would now undergo junxun, a month-long period of compulsory military training intended to instill freshmen with patriotic vigor and empathy for their fellow soldiers in the real army. “Not a fun experience,” said Jingjing, a 26-year-old accountancy major whose attendance at an elite university did not exempt her. Jingjing described it as “being hauled out of bed at the break of dawn, standing sometimes in the grilling sun for an hour straight and once-a-week shower opportunities of five minutes.” (She did not wish to give her surname.)

“I was raised to believe that the P.L.A. serves to defend my homeland and people,” Guo, a 29-year-old translator and soldier’s daughter who would only share her surname, told Foreign Policy. “My first impression of them, besides my father, came during the 1998 flood when soldiers were deployed by the central government to rescue people in Wuhan,” she said. Thousands of soldiers rushed to assist with the rescue and reconstruction, recalling the aftermath of the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, which left nearly a quarter-million dead and a city effectively leveled, but with no professional rescue force to call upon. But in the giant industrial city of Wuhan, 100,000 troops, reportedly marching 24 hours a day in blazing heat across country, converged on the stricken city to coordinate the rescue. Even though the catastrophe left about 4,000 dead and 6.9 million homes in the Yangtze basin destroyed, it proved a seminal moment in the P.L.A.’s ongoing rehabilitation, raising its members’ status to national heroes akin to New York’s famous first responders on the morning of 9/11.

Similar scenes repeated this summer, as the worst floods since 1998 swept through Wuhan, leaving death and destruction in their wake, and the P.L.A. again mobilized for round-the-clock rescue work. “Our truck had just left,” a soldier wrote about similar floods on a top-rated answer for question-and-answer site Zhihu, to the query, “What has a stranger ever done that touched you deeply?” “The civilians started chasing [us], throwing baskets full of steamed buns… crying ‘Where will we meet you again?’ I can vividly remember them saying: ‘You’re are just as young as our own children; how could we ask you to sacrifice your lives for us?’ As I stood watching them, there was only one thought on my mind: I would gladly sacrifice my life for them, and it would be worth the price.”

Efforts like these “have helped greatly to restore the P.L.A.’s image,” according to Dennis Blasko, author of The Chinese Army Today. “Probably more people have been helped by disaster relief efforts than remember or were affected by Tiananmen.” The government is quick to exploit the value of their sacrifice, screening round-the-clock footage of muddied soldiers pulling out survivors, stacking sandbags, and building dikes; another favorite trope is images of exhausted troops unconscious on makeshift beds, or passed out mid-meal from grueling daylong shifts.

Such heroism makes for approved copy while censors are busy suppressing details about the corruption, negligence and wanton incompetence that routinely enable such disasters to inflict staggering death tolls. Nevertheless, doses of P.L.A. propaganda are part of a Chinese person’s daily information diet, whether there’s a disaster happening or not. Depictions of soldiers engaged in outlandish feats of martial-arts prowess or conducting gung-ho stunts are a perennial form of showboating (a supposed crackdown on such spectacles has done little to dampen the enthusiasm for them). Earlier this year, Descendants of the Sun, a Korean television production, garnered nearly half a billion views from Chinese drawn to its convoluted plot about a globetrotting South Korean soldier’s romance with a surgeon. It wasn’t P.L.A. propaganda, of course, but among its many fans was Party mouthpiece People’s Daily, which declared the series “an excellent advert for conscription.”

Not every bit of P.L.A. propaganda is successful. A traditional-style campaign encouraging ordinary women to “wash soldiers’ clothes” recently irked feminists, while a comic strip published by the Party’s youth wing, the Communist Youth League, proved similarly controversial. “I Am In Love With Him,” ostensibly about the love between a girl and a young soldier, contains dialogue hinting at a deeper, more fraught analogy to the relationship between the Chinese people and their military: “When I first knew him, he was still a poor young man,” explains the female narrator. “He has an unpleasant past. That is his trauma. He does not want to talk about it, and I am always careful to avoid it. After all, who doesn’t have a past?” The post, edging perhaps a bit too close to 1989, was later deleted.

Overall, however, the barrage of propaganda has seemed to work. Current notions of self-enrichment and national rejuvenation—Xi’s so-called China Dream—“are propelled by nationalism and a deep conviction that foreign countries are seeking to surround and contain China,” said Blasko. “Most Chinese citizens are happy to have and support a professional P.L.A., with some degree of conscription, as long as they are not in it.”

Even those who are in it enjoy the prestige. One of my first Chinese friends was a P.L.A. soldier I met at the border; after sternly scrutinizing my visa, she marched up afterward to demand my number. (You don’t refuse a woman in uniform when she has your passport.) Ting Ting admitted P.L.A. life was quite boring; female soldiers were mainly for ceremonial or domestic roles, she told me, and never received serious combat training. But the respect and admiration that people gave the uniform was still deeply satisfying to an ordinary village girl like her.

The P.L.A.’s need for respect and adoration also reflects constant anxiety among China’s elites about their own standing. The Party’s contemporary fear is less of another Tiananmen than of being hollowed out by its own internal problems. The army has long been notorious for the massive corruption of its officer class. (They are called jundui jiating, “military background persons,” as opposed to regular infantry, who enjoy the fraternal moniker renmin zi di bing, or “son and brother soldier.”) Observers say the problem only worsened in the aftermath of Tiananmen, when “opposing corruption” had been another major P.L.A. slogan. The selling of promotions, with million-dollar prices attached to upper ranks, has become a common form of graft, along with blackmail, smuggling, protection rackets, and illegal investments.

Xi’s response has been to implement a top-down overhaul, arresting dozens of top personnel. These include retired generals like Xu Caihou, once considered untouchable; Xu’s cash pile was allegedly so large it took 10 vehicles to remove it from his sprawling mansion, an alarming detail quickly scrubbed by nervous censors. “If the military is seen as a corrupt institution, as it was during the early 1980s in China, overall support for the P.L.A. could be undermined,” Daniel Hartnett, an analyst at the CNA Corporation, told the War is Boring blog. “This would go heavily against the military’s narrative that it is the keeper of [Chinese] honor and integrity that it has worked so hard to develop over the past two-plus decades.” Through Xi’s corruption-busting campaign, he aims to create an effective global fighting force, while bolstering crucial popular support.

A 2015 military parade in Beijing showcased Xi’s vision for a domestic television audience, who largely thrilled at the sight. (By contrast, the local population was ordered to stay indoors.) Those who’d grown up in fear of imminent nuclear attack took succor from knowing that the P.L.A. “has our backs,” as a younger friend put it. Even less-nationalist viewers didn’t share outsiders’ qualms about an “anti-fascist” rally that featured jackbooted, goose-stepping soldiers marching through Tiananmen.

Bit by bit, the relentless image-making seems to work. “The songs stuck,” Jingjing recalled of her mandatory college-training days. “They connect the dots of our training to our lives today.” For a foreigner, nighttime chants from a hidden army base are just another part of an often-mystifying daily routine. To Chinese people like Jingjing, they’re something more: “A reminder that the country I live in is, after all, a Communist one.” It will be up to Xi and the generals to ensure the army doesn’t betray the patriotism it once again inspires.