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The army is everywhere

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.

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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.


12 Comments

  1. Baobo says:

    Another way to look at it is that the American army is isolated. Or, citizens are insulated from it. Not since Civil War militias or perhaps Revolutionary Minutemen has the average person been close to drilling and military exercises.

    Historically, this arrangement is the exception instead of the norm. There is even a constitutional amendment (number 3) about not having to quarter soldiers unwillingly.

  2. […] 中国见红博客:无处不在的军队——在中国,大多情况下你不会见到太多军人。但是每年特定时间里,你会觉得他们到处都是。 […]

  3. Charlie says:

    Military presence can seemingly appear at any time in China at the drop of a hat. During the period of instability in the Tibetan region of China, there were soldiers with assault rifles in Chunxi Lu, Chengdu’s biggest shopping center. And of course the state-condoned anti-Japan protest which included an enormous show of military force. They’re never far away, or at least it certainly feels that way.

    • Tom says:

      Seeing those pictures from the protest were chilling, I visited Chunxi lu a number of times while living in Chengdu, and to see them so completely transformed was deeply unsettling, especially when I started scanning the crowd for my students’ faces.

      • Charlie says:

        I could see people getting beaten and so on at the protest, there were quite a few scuffles near me. No one seriously injured that I could see, but people bleeding and so on. At certain points the atmosphere was quite terrifying but I mostly sensed the fear in others around me. I did nothing to agitate the police there and they left me alone but I’ve gotten the sense many times that authorities use force of intimidation on average citizens while kindness and tolerance is usually reserved for foreigners.

  4. 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.

    Yikes… I live in Vietnam, & people here are SCARED. One of my friends (who’s quite poor) told me that she often wonders whether there’s any point in saving her money–whether she ought to just spend it all before China swoops down & obliterates her country.

  5. It’s been my experience that a lot of Chinese people are somewhat cyncial about the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) but they still hold a great deal of respect for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

    A lot of this was due to the imagery of PLA soldiers working in the aftermath of disasters, particularly the Sichuan earthquake. The PLA are seen as one of the last of the more ‘pure’ vestiges of Mao’s communist spirit. (I’d argue that communist spirit was never all that pure, but hey, I’m rather cynical myself).

    When articles were published that indicated much of that disaster imagery was staged for the cameras, many Chinese people I know wouldn’t even countenance it. (In fairness, even if there were some photo-op style moments, I’m sure there was a lot of genuine heroism too).

    Somewhat ironically, the PLA has been growing more distant from the party of late, or at least the Politburo Standing Central Committee. Hu Jintao was never really involved in that guanxi network, and Wen Jiabao certainly wasn’t. You could certainly see the disconnect when Hu was visiting the States earlier this year and the PLA decided that this sensitive moment was the best time to test their new stealth fighter. I think they’re hoping Xi Jinping will be able to better unite them.

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  7. Nanjing is a very important city, apparently.

    In my university, the drills for some 1000-2000 1st year students also goes on, impressive. They begin early in the morning and go into the evening! From learning a wicked “Shaolin” military close combat techniques were they keep shouting “DIE!!” (SHA!!) to singing military rhymes or learning to walk at the sound of nationalist themes, the brainwashing is evident..

    As in the pictures above, nobody seems to be happy and motivated, overall. Of course, except for those times when going Nationalist is the only way. This should be handled along their bachelor and eventual major degree, as they should go through more than one compulsory subject on Chinese Socialism.

    Oh, and I love how the Party makes his presence with a regular fight helicopter doing [very] low flights over our buildings (I got the videos to prove it!). In important nationalist dates, one can see up to three flying together.

  8. Ander says:

    Let’s not forget that this kind of military training/indoctrination is also required by all first-year high school students.

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