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Changed and unchanged: PLA 30 years after China's reform, opening-up
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13:18, December 18, 2008

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To 53-year-old Liu Zhihe, it is easy to grab a machine gun and fight on the battleground, but it is a big headache to press any button on a computer keyboard in the office.

"It's a tough job for me to learn new technologies such as office automation," he said. Liu has been on active service for 36 years and is now political commissar of the Wenshan Military Area Command of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) in southwestern Yunnan Province.

"In this regard, we cannot keep abreast of young soldiers who have relatively higher education, active thought, broad vision, abundant knowledge and better ability to study," he said.

Today's soldiers are under much greater study and training pressure than before against the backdrop of a globalization and information era, he said.

"So many things take place in the world every day and lots of new technologies are invented. But if you want to be a winner in hi-tech information warfare, you have to keep learning and updating your knowledge all the time," he said.


Changes to the 2.3-million-servicemen-strong PLA over the past several decades are even more than those catalogued by Liu.

In addition to the three large-scale disarmaments in 1985, 1997and 2003 in which China announced a reduction of 1.7 million servicemen in total, the most visible changes can be found in the necessities of life: Dacron clothes were substituted by more comfortable wool-like uniforms; tents or makeshift houses were replaced by garden- and villa-like barracks; servicemen used to rely on their own feet or horses for transport while today, they have SUVs; eating one's fill was the ultimate goal in the past when the country was short of food, but nowadays, varieties and nutritive value of foods are stressed.

"We had no shooting range then," Liu recalled. "Now, a variety of training grounds and armaments are available. We also carry out exchanges with foreign militaries and draw on useful training experiences from them."

Another change that impressed Liu most was the marked increase of messing allowance for young soldiers.

"It was 12 yuan (1.8 U.S. dollars) for a soldier per month. Now, it is 18 yuan a day," he said.

Liu described the changes as "earth-shaking" and attributed them to the reform and opening-up policy initiated 30 years ago.

"The reform and opening-up brought about the rapid growth of China's economy and boosted the overall national strength, which laid a solid foundation for the building of national defense and army," he said. "As a result, the country can afford to raise the defense budget somewhat and help improve the life of army men."

"Simply speaking, we officers and soldiers are beneficiaries of the policy."


As peace and development became the major themes of the world, China has walked out of the shadow of "Cold War" long before and changed its strategic thoughts on army building -- disarmament was a typical example.

"We used to prepare for warfare anytime, but now, our role has changed," said Wang Qiangsheng, a battalion commander at the PLA Yunnan Military Area Command.

"For instance, as frontier defence troops, we're committed to safeguarding the border and creating a peace environment for local residents," he said.

Although it is compulsory for army men to obey orders, democratic management is beginning to take root in Chinese barracks.

"If soldiers have complaints or suggestions, they can talk to us officers directly or indirectly," said Wen Fangbing, a platoon leader at the PLA Guangxi Military Area Command, while pointing to a rectangle wooden box -- similar to a small mailbox -- hung on his dormitory door.

"It's called 'democracy box.' Soldiers can place their letters of complaints or suggestions into the box, which usually cover how to improve diet, sentry deployment, construction of sentry post and others," he said.

In some troops, senior officers also announced their e-mail addresses on the intranet that offered a modern channel for soldiers to file complaints.

The right to ask for a leave had long been ignored in Chinese army, however, the situation has changed over recent years.

"Young officers in the past were supposed not to ask for leave even if there was an emergency in his family. On the contrary, it's perfectly justified for them to do so today," said 47-year-old Zhang Xudong, director of the Political Department of the PLA Wenshan Military Area Command.

"The idea of 'putting people first' is being advocated in the army," he said. "That helps reassure the servicemen and stabilize the troops."


Some things changed, but some things remain unchanged.

"The Party controls guns. This guiding principle has never changed since the era of Chairman Mao," said Liu Zhihe in Wenshan.

He said militaries in different countries have lots of common things -- their function and mission are basically the same, and their training and management are all strict.

"But the Chinese Army is different from those of many other countries. that is, the Communist Party of China has an absolute leadership of the army," he said.

"The servicemen are always learning the latest theories proposed by the Party, such as the Scientific Outlook on Development," he said.

The Scientific Outlook on Development has been a new doctrine of the Communist Party of China that stresses sustainable economic growth and harmony between man and the nature.

Meanwhile, the nature of "people's army" -- a more common name for PLA in China -- remains unchanged.

"We come from the people and therefore we serve them, that's my understanding about 'people's army,'" said 25-year-old Gong Guodong, a non-commissioned officer (Class 2) at the PLA Yunnan Military Area Command.

"Take for example, we army men often pitch in with disaster-relief operations," he said.

After the devastating 8.0-magnitude earthquake struck southwestern Sichuan Province on May 12, China mobilized 146,000 troops for relief operation.

"I spent a night in Yingxiu Town and saw PLA soldiers busy with repairing roads and saving survivors. A look at their green uniforms indeed reassured me," a journalist from Singapore's Lianhe Zaobao daily wrote in a report on May 18.

For a long time, the Chinese troops stationed in different regions have also helped local governments to develop the economy and strengthen their relationship with residents, which is different from the militaries of many other countries. That is another explanation of "people's army."

Another unique feature of the Chinese Army is that the servicemen still plant vegetable and raise pigs today, which has not changed since Chairman Mao's era.

"In my eyes, raising pigs is also a philosophy of life. Frankly speaking, we won't be hungry even if we don't plant vegetable and raise pigs by ourselves," said 31-year-old Yang Meng, an officer at the PLA Yunnan Military Area Command.

"But the point is, in this way, we're inheriting the glorious tradition of the Chinese Army and foster a spirit of working hard and living plainly among young officers and soldiers," he said.

Source: Xinhua

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