Shoring Up PLA “Military Cultural Security” to Ensure Stability

A Marker for the Military Culture Museum

As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) careens toward the 18th Party Congress and a generational leadership transition, Beijing seems concerned with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and where it stands politically. CCP and PLA press have expressed these concerns in a variety of ways, whether dismissing changes to the party-army relations or opining on the need for greater officer loyalty (PLA Daily, June 17, May 15; People’s Daily, June 15). The latest expression is “military cultural security” (junshi wenhua anquan). The concern with “military cultural security” probably is not a backhanded criticism of President Hu Jintao, who has been unable to reform China’s cultural apparatus  despite the emphasis he has put on it (People’s Daily, July 9; Qiushi, January 1). Rather, the concept seems to embody a coherent way of developing a loyal, motivated and innovative PLA with a clear vision of its role within the party-state.

The PLA has discussed “military cultural security” as an important idea, because of its relationship to fighting power and the role of the PLA—a kind of security counterpart to the motivational work of political commissars. As an overarching concept that needs to be protected, culture acts as a “guide for thinking,” “a conceptual pilot” and “the lifeblood of the nation (minzu)” (People’s Daily, June 15). This concept suggests three concrete implications of healthy military culture. First, the Clausewitzian and Napoleonic view that the moral and spiritual dimensions of war outweigh the physical is used to underpin the view that PLA culture is both an engine and a booster for the military’s fighting capability (PLA Daily, July 2; People’s Daily, June 15). As Mao Zedong said, “an uncultured army is stupid and a stupid army cannot defeat an enemy” (PLA Daily, June 20). Second, a healthy military culture supports the preservation of the CCP and appropriate civil-military relations (PLA Daily, June 15; Red Flag, May 24). Finally, the development of advanced military culture and military cohesion are necessary for the PLA to take advantage of this peaceful period for army construction (Shanxi Daily, July 18).

The PLA’s concern with “cultural security” probably is the military reflection of Beijing’s fear of cultural infiltration, which Hu described as a war after the party plenum last year (Qiushi, January 1). As the military press characterized the issue, “If economic globalization has brought more opportunities than challenges, then cultural globalization has brought more challenges than opportunities” (PLA Daily, July 2). With the fall of the Soviet Union and the survival of the Chinese communist party-state, the West allegedly turned its cultural propaganda on China, exploiting new platforms like the Internet to reach Chinese audiences and undermine their faith in the party. Moreover, ideological alternatives has become more varied, making it easier for “Western hostile forces” to exploit confusion surrounding the values of the CCP (Party Building, July 5; Red Flag, May 24). The problem, as propaganda czar Li Changchun put it, is how to reach people in order to spread the CCP message and make it competitive with all of the other competing modes of thought (Xinhua, June 29).

The military is not immune to these broader propaganda challenges as a leading party journal noted the “military cultural security” system was not well-developed or comprehensive (Red Flag, May 24). How the PLA intends to bolster this system, however, remains unclear, because it involves “creating a strong [ideational] line of  defense resistant to corruption” (PLA Daily, July 2). At a minimum, it includes preventing ideological sabotage made possible by foreigners exploiting China’s growing pluralization. The most notable example is preventing the spread of three mistaken ideas about the PLA’s role in China, including the military’s nationalization, de-politicization and removing the party’s direct role in the PLA (Shanxi Daily, July 18; Red Flag, May 24). The second, more positive, element is to create an environment within the PLA to foster advanced military culture, which, in addition to loyalty, allows for strategic thinking and military innovation (PLA Daily, July 2).

The Chinese military’s complementary efforts to improve information security and political work may have created the conditions to meet the first demand of “military culture security.” Last year, Beijing started cracking down on violators of military policy on personal electronics in an effort to restrict the ability of PLA information to flow to the outside world (Hebei.com.cn, April 28, 2011; Xinhua, April 1, 2011). Moreover, the PLA General Political Department already has started to develop new tools more suited to the Information Age to indoctrinate soldiers through microblogs, new websites and even smart phone apps. The idea behind these initiatives is to inject PLA political work into soldiers’ social space so that propaganda materials can compete more effectively with other online information and entertainment (“PLA Puts Political Work Online,” China Brief, February 3). By restricting PLA personnel’s ability to communicate with the outside world and making propaganda more accessible, the new policies should improve “military cultural security” even if that was not the original intent.

The most likely reason for Beijing’s concern with PLA culture and loyalty probably relates to the challenges of the leadership transition. There is always anxiousness in China when difficult politicking is underway. The more open and pluralistic society, the generational leadership transition, and the ongoing discussions of reform, however, make this year’s sensitivity particularly acute. Given the repeated emphasis in the official press about the importance of PLA for China’s national security—both its domestic and international components—analysts should not be surprised by the repeated exhortations for the PLA to be loyal (Xinhua, July 17; PLA Daily, July 2, June 26, June 17, April 6, March 19). The 1.8 million party members in China’s military and paramilitary forces may not be expected to lead reform or choose the next leaders, but their adherence to the CCP’s leading role is a prerequisite for any major adjustment to the status quo.