By Kalpit A. Mankikar
A famous general once said, the soldier is the army and no army is better than its soldiers. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seems to be ruminating on this axiom and is pulling out all the stops to create wolf warriors in real life too.
The clashes along the India–China border in 2020 seem to have given a new life to this venture. This also comes at a time when the Chinese economy is reeling under the excesses of its strident COVID-19 curbs, and there is a prospect of student unrest as a consequence of the controls. During an address to the Communist Youth League, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping referred to a poem by a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldier who was killed in clashes with the Indian Army in Galwan Valley two years ago.
During February’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, a soldier involved in the confrontation was chosen for the torch relay. The CCP readily risked a boycott of the games by the Indian diplomatic corps for its project to militarise its Gen Next. Militarism is defined as the infusion of military values like patriotism, unity, and discipline into civil society, and the CCP is trying to mould battle heroes for future generations. During his decade-long tenure at China’s helm, Xi has tightened curbs on the private sector, and his crackdown on societal mores has gone largely unnoticed.
China’s media regulator, National Radio and Television Administration, recently announced a boycott of artists who do not conform to the Party’s standards of masculinity. Instead, the censors specified that the entertainment industry lay more emphasis on “traditional Chinese culture and revolution culture”. The CCP expects that such course correction concerning youngsters’ lifestyles will lead to desirable results as far as its political objectives are concerned. One of the main ‘development goals’ announced at the 2020 Plenum—the yearly gathering of the CCP’s Central Committee that deliberates on policy matters—was the building of a strong, modern army by 2027, when the PLA completes 100 years.
China’s Vietnam syndrome
An army is as good as its soldier, and here Xi is grappling with a conundrum. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) last saw action in 1979 against Vietnam. The servicemen who fought in that battle have retired leaving China’s military with little real-time combat experience. While there is no official confirmation of the PLA’s casualties, it is speculated that PLA’s forces suffered over 6,500 casualties and around 31,000 were injured in that battle.
The Vietnam debacle seems to have left the CCP with a distaste for protracted armed conflict. While China’s military historians valorise the exploits of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army’s role in the 1950s Korean War, the Vietnamese conflict has been largely erased from memory. But debacles on the battlefield have not stopped the CCP from conjuring “victories” or creating “war heroes”.
China’s quest for military icons
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the collision between a Chinese fighter craft and a US spy plane over the South China Sea. The accident had led to the detention of the American crew, whose release was secured after the US ambassador to Beijing reportedly apologised. However, the Chinese portrayed the incident as a great victory, and Lieutenant-Commander Wang Wei who lost his life in the mishap became a decorated hero. In recent years, the legend of “revolutionary martyr” Wang has got a new lease of life with a great deal of publicity generated over a purported letter in which he sought to apply for CCP membership and his wish to dedicate his life to it.
In the run-up to the CCP’s centenary, there was a high-profile commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea” in which the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army played a role. The CCP decreed that every movie theatre must promote war movies and compulsorily dedicate two screenings from an official list of 12 films. China’s first movie on its involvement in the Korean conflict, ‘Battle on Shangganling Mountain’ was released again in cinema halls across the nation after more than six decades.
Official propaganda depicted it as China’s sole victory against the American army. Xi said: “The Chinese People’s Volunteer Army routed a better-armed rival…broke the myth that the US military is invincible.” Despite the bombast about the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) defeating the US military, the former remains largely untested on the battlefield, and its personnel seems to have been its Achilles heel. In recent times, the military’s mouthpiece, ‘the PLA Daily’, has diagnosed that both men and morale have been hollowed out by economic prosperity, terming it as a ‘peace disease’.
When a person signs up to join the army, the individual is, in effect, handing over this life to the institution. The PLA is the CCP’s army, and thus, remains a politicised force. Its officials serve a leader, not the nation. Since 2014, PLA generals have started swearing loyalty to Xi, and in effect, it gives rise to careerism where individuals advance their future prospects at the cost of their integrity. Army veterans protesting for dues and better conditions post-retirement makes for bad optics with respect to recruiting youngsters.
To rectify this image, the Chinese regime initiated some institutional changes. In March 2018, a year after demobilised soldiers protested against unpaid dues, a Ministry of Veterans Affairs was formed to look into the issues of a 57 million-strong community. A new law to support ex-service personnel came into effect from 2021, which mandates preferential financing policies concerning getting loans for ventures and tax rebates for firms hiring them.
Senior officers accused of corruption and profiteering are being weeded out to improve integrity. Plans are afoot to overhaul the law on national conscription. Conscription applies to the youth eligible to join the active-duty forces. A national-level website has been launched to enable young people to register for their tour of duty. Thus, efforts are on to create an environment where youngsters see a career in the military as a viable option and redress concerns of people who may be worried about the nature of the severance package in-store.
Learning from Ukraine
However, the project to motivate more youngsters has been accorded top priority since Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. An analysis of the conflict so far shows that highly-motivated Ukraine forces are putting up a tough fight before an army that once crushed Nazi Germany. Major General Mandip Singh, from Army War College, argues that the PLA was modelled on the lines of the Soviet Red Army and even now is greatly influenced by Russian doctrines. China has been keeping tabs on the progress of the war and is drawing lessons from Putin’s blunders. Thus, Xi’s recent efforts to inject militarism in Chinese society must be seen in this light.
China’s ambitions into up for discussion during the 2022 Raisina Dialogue—India’s premier conference on geopolitics and geoeconomics. Andrew Shearer, Director General of Australia’s Office of National Intelligence, argued that China’s pact with the Solomon Islands opens the prospect of increased Chinese defence presence in the Pacific.
Xi is keen to go down in Chinese history as the leader who integrated Taiwan, and in the estimation of Jin Canrong, a professor in Renmin University’s School of International Studies, he could forcibly unify the island by 2027. Xi may be using the interval to boost the PLA’s operational capability in the hope that having boots on the ground in small island nations will help the soldiers acclimatise to conditions beyond the mainland. Thus, creating new military role models might just be the first phase of Xi’s project to wrest Taiwan.
The author was assisted by Aditya Pandey in the research of this article.