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Lotus Ruan

Why China is Fuming at its Singing, Dancing Soldiers

(Via Bigstockphoto)
(Via Bigstockphoto)

China’s “entertainment soldiers,” or “wen yi bing,” are back in the news.

On August 7, a 14-year-old boy was found listed as staff on the personnel schedule of a local government-affiliated organization in Henan province in central China. When the public began to investigate the designation, the organization chief explained that the boy was specially admitted into the army as an entertainment soldier.

Earlier this year, Li Tianyi–the son of two well-known Chinese singers affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) who enjoy treatment equivalent to that of high-ranking officers—was arrested by Beijing police and accused along with four others of gang raping a young woman in Beijing.

While the accusation remains unproven, it is enough to explain the mounting resentment against Chinese entertainment soldiers. It also may explain why, when South Korea announced the “death” of its 16-year-old “celebrity army” system last month, some Chinese paid more attention to the news than Koreans did. And Han Xudong, professor at PLA National Defence [sic] University, was undoubtedly one of them.

On July 25, Han published a commentary on Global Times, a newspaper that largely trumpets the views of the Chinese Communist Party, arguing that “the existence of entertainment soldiers is necessary and valuable.文艺兵的存在仍是必要的,有价值的

Han’s views, while supported by some, also faced criticism and rebuttal from Chinese netizens. From breaking everyday rules, to allegedly providing sex for higher officials, to possible corruption, the reputation of Chinese entertainment soldiers seems to be falling by the day. On Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, user @语笑嫣然great mocked,

“Entertainment soldiers are necessary because first, they sing eulogistic songs and praise for authorities’ conduct, presenting a false picture of peace and prosperity, and second, they entertain senior officers. Tax-payers are obliged to raise the army; the army, in return, is obliged to provide for military prostitutes.”

What are “entertainment soldiers”?

With all of the chatter surrounding China’s “entertainment soldiers,” it’s worth asking: what are they?

In fact, there is no such thing as an “entertainment soldier,” at least not in official documents or PLA regulations. Authorities are more likely to refer to such personnel as “literary, art, and sport performers in the army.军队文艺体育工作者

The word “soldier” is not entirely correct either. In China, both on-duty and reserve soldiers can be categorized into two types: army officers and civil officers. The former are required to undergo military training, and are subject to being sent on to the battlefield at wartime. By contrast, the civil officer corps, to which most of the entertainment “soldiers” belong, do not attain any military rank.

A brief history

The PLA’s penchant for cultivating and promoting literature and art work dates as early as 1927. When Chairman Mao was leading his Autumn Harvest Uprising, he ordered, “Putting on art performances is one of the missions for committees of regiments, battalions and companies at each level.开展文化活动是团、营、连各级士兵委员会的任务之一

A year later, the propaganda team of the Fourth Red Army was established and later admitted as a formal team within the Communist Party’s military system. The team was responsible for PLA propaganda, and for  providing entertainment such as singing and dancing for soldiers when there was no battle to fight as well as for writing and acting out drama.

Ever since, the Communist Party has allocated plentiful resources to its “entertainment army” units. During World War II, entertainment soldiers, regarded as “helpful in boosting morale鼓舞军心士气,” were given so much attention that most army units at the regiment level and above had their own drama clubs and art performer troupes. 

Fading reputation

The Party has been a stalwart source of support, but the Chinese public appears to question whether entertainment troupes have outlived their usefulness.

User @凯瑞曹 asked whether the function could be outsourced: “Have (the authorities) made a calculation? Is it appropriate to keep the entertainment army units or we should pay other professional troupes for performing for our soldiers?是不是算过一个帐?是养文艺兵队伍合适?还是花钱请其他专业团体给子弟兵演出合适?” User @包红旗空间 went further: “In peacetime, the sole value of keeping entertainment soldiers is for corruption!和平时期使用文艺兵的唯一目的就是为了腐败!

There is some truth to this assertion.

The PLA has not released details of its military spending, so there are no accurate statistics about PLA entertainment expenditures. The consensus guess is that the current scale of PLA entertainment troupes exceeds 10,000 people while the total cost of keeping the entertainment soldiers and army units of low operational capacity could amount to 10 billion RMB (about US$1.6 billion).

To make matter worse, the aforementioned disgruntlement extends beyond the public to soldiers in the barracks.

Commentator Feng Qingyang quoted a retired veteran complaining, “Servicemen are supposed to defend their country. Can they achieve this by singing? If [one] can become an officer just because [one] has a pretty face and can sing a few songs, what about those soldiers who devote themselves to their service during but encounter difficulties in getting a job after decommissioning?”

The PLA appeared to agree, at least several years ago. The 2006 White Paper on National Defense shows that China disarmed 20,000 soldiers, with a large proportion of them being entertainment soldiers. But such measures have not been mentioned again in successive white papers issued in 2008, 2010, and 2013.

To some, the PLA’s effort to downsize its entertainment units is so slow as to merit ridicule. As user @任柯瑺 warned:

China now declares to the world: China adheres to a policy of no first use of entertainment army troupes at any time or under any circumstances, and has made the unequivocal commitment that it unconditionally will not use, or threaten to use, entertainment army troupes against non-entertainment army troupe states or entertainment army troupes free zones.中国郑重向全世界宣布:中国在任何时候,任何情况下,都不会首先使用文工团,都不会对无文工团、无文艺兵国家使用文工团。

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Lotus Ruan

Lotus Ruan is a graduating student at Beijing Foreign Studies University, and was born and raised in Guangzhou. Currently, she is an editorial intern at Ifeng.com and has published several news articles in the Southern Metropolis Daily, New Business Magazine, and Hong Kong Independent Media. She is particularly interested in sociology and world politics.
  • Chinese Netizen

    Every military has some form of “entertainment” or ceremonial troops.
    The US has some full time bands such as the US Marine Corps Band (aka “The President’s Own”), various ceremonial drill teams of the different branches of the military, and almost every major unit or command has a band of some form, though the members of these smaller regional bands do this in addition to regular military duties.
    The British have their world famous ceremonial guards and bands as well that perform the act of guarding the Sovereign and her various properties but are also a major tourist attraction that define the United Kingdom as a nation.
    The biggest difference compared to the PLA’s performers, from what I’ve seen, is that in the UK/US system, the members are regular troops that must do regular duty, compete for promotion, and maintain a military degree of fitness and bearing. Many of the American and British ceremonial troops have done tours in Iraq, Afghanistan or other dangerous zones in addition to rotations in regular line units. In the PLA, the entertainers are full time entertainers that can record albums for sale, appear regularly on television, and are very doubtful when it comes to fitness for front line duty.
    As for being prostitutes or mistresses for higher ranking CCP officials…well…I have seen no evidence of that. On the other hand, the PLA also has its various “honor guards” that look tall and military when visiting heads of state visit China. I wonder if these guys are full time honor guard troops or if they ever rotate back into the regular ranks during their career like their Western counterparts?
    The other thing the PLA has, in addition to performers, is artists, scientists and other specialists that probably never had military training but are given uniforms, rank and a salary. Look at Mao Zedong’s fat, lethargic grandson as an example.

  • A

    @chinese_netizen:disqus,

    In regards to physical fitness, does anyone know the breakdown of “entertainment” troops between singers and dancers? From everything I know about dancing, and I’ve seen of PLA dancers they are in great physical shape, probably in better shape than the “regular” military troops. I would assume that they are in better shape than many of the regular American military soldiers I’ve met. Or am I mistaken? Is part of the luxury of these troops, that they can stop training, and fall out of shape?