Nearly 9 months ago I wrote a post that emphasized the fact that the gov’t rarely intrudes in the private lives of most citizens. Which for the most part is still true, unless you are an outspoken artist, or are trying to actually run for office. To the casual visitor to China, it might seem that the army also stays out of the way since they are harder to spot. Yet at times the military seems omnipresent.
I say this for several reasons. Partially because yesterday morning, on what was supposed to be a holiday, I witnessed nearly a hundred students, dressed in army fatigues, marching around the center of campus. The campus literally echoes with the sound of their drills. “Army training” is mandatory for all college students, and seems to have started very shortly after the Tian’anmen Square protests as a way to instill a sense of nationalism.
Before my American readers panic, “army training” pretty much consists of marching around campus for anywhere from two weeks to a month, listening to stories from soldiers, and a healthy dose of communist propaganda. However for my students in Longzhou, which is near Vietnam, it also included an afternoon of learning how to fire AK-47’s, which was seen as necessary given the unstable relationship between the two countries.
This month of marching isn’t completely useless though, it helps form student minds inline with Party orthodoxy. One of my dear friends told me that he was deeply ashamed of how brainwashed he had become during this “army training”. Even though he is now one of my more critical friends when it comes to issues related to the Communist Party, he had taken to the streets in rage after the imperialist Americans had bombed China’s embassy in Belgrade. When the protests became about something larger than the specific incident, it was all quickly shut down. He was disgusted when he realized that he had simply been a tool used by the gov’t to apply pressure abroad. So it isn’t surprising that the Anti-Japanese protests in Chengdu last year consisted almost entirely of college aged people (rebellion in line with party thought is the only acceptable kind).
My second reason for being aware of the military presence, is that on my way to work I pass nearly half a dozen military zones (军事区), and see a handful of military cars every day.
Upon learning even a handful of characters, one starts to realize just how many urban buildings are actually military offices. In Nanjing this seems to be especially true because it is the headquarters for 1 of China’s 7 military regions. There seem to be hundreds of offices around Nanjing to support the 250,000 soldiers active in the region. Chengdu also had several large army bases downtown (within the first ring road).
While I was researching the Rape of Nanjing, I began hunting for old buildings that were once consulates and sanctuaries for refugees. I saw that almost all of the old embassy buildings were now surrounded with high fences which demarcated military property (however the old American consulate is a pre-school, and the former Dutch consulate is owned by a Japanese hotel). An elderly woman explained that after the civil war, the PLA had taken many of the foreign buildings for their own use, in her words it was a kind of “Army first” policy.
Note: I began to map these to demonstrate the density of military offices, but decided that might be misinterpreted.
I believe that this feeling of the army being everywhere is not simply by coincidence, after all the People’s Liberation Army loyalty does not actually lie with the people or the country, but the Party itself. Their exhibition of might is not just a way to keep nearby Asian countries in line, but serves as a reminder to activists of who is really in charge. In the wake of the Egyptian uprising, where the army backed the people over Mubarak, General Li Jinai said in an article entitled No nationalization of military in China, “We must resolutely reject these false political ideas (of separating from Party control) and unswervingly listen to and follow the Party.”
OK American readers (and Chinese activists), now you can take a moment to panic.