With all its new weapons systems and platforms, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has become a powerful military by any standard that can be quantified. But how will PLA officers and enlisted, however well-armed, perform when faced in combat by a capable adversary? China’s civilian and military leaders are not optimistic.
Since early 2013, the PLA has conducted a political campaign to cultivate xuexing (血性)—courage, or valor—in its soldier, sailors, and airmen. Prompted by instructions from Xi Jinping, this campaign has sought to ensure that the services exhibit the aggressiveness needed to defeat a powerful adversary. It was initiated due to a perceived lack of warrior spirit in the military. The PLA seeks to rectify inadequacies by changing service culture through political work and training. Understanding this effort sheds light on how Chinese leaders gauge the balance of power between China and potential foes.
The PLA’s focus on fostering xuexing can be traced to the 2013 Instructions for Political Work in Military Training, issued just three months after Xi Jinping became Chairman of the Central Military Commission. The official summary of the Instructions stated that in 2013 the Chinese military would “vigorously cultivate a combat spirit of, first, not fearing hardship and, second, not fearing death (一不怕苦，二不怕死).” Military training would be conducted in “harsh and complex conditions,” to cultivate xuexing (PRC Central Government, February 7, 2013). Subsequent Instructions, issued in 2014 and 2015, reiterated the need to develop xuexing in the Chinese military (PRC Ministry of Defense, February 10, 2014; PRC Central Government, February 2, 2015).
Authoritative sources directly connect this objective with remarks made by Xi Jinping. On at least one occasion, Xi warned, “In peacetime, we cannot let the military become soft (娇气). A mighty army must be mighty, and soldiers must have xuexing.” At the Gutian Work Conference in November 2014, Xi emphasized the important role of political work in instilling the warrior spirit, calling on the military to cultivate a “new generation of revolutionary soldiers,” which, among other things, must possess xuexing (Renminwang, December 21, 2015).
Xuexing means having the courage to pursue victory despite prospects of hardship and death. A close reading of Chinese sources discussing the term and the campaign indicates several other noteworthy characteristics: 
- Xuexing is cultivated, not inherited. Political work is vital to its cultivation.
- The campaign is fixated on developing the ability to defeat a “powerful adversary” (强敌) [i.e., a euphemism for the United States, and perhaps Japan]. A military without xuexing, has no hope of victory against a powerful adversary.
- Xuexing remains important even in an age of “informatized” warfare, where enemies may never see each other.
- Common metaphors: xuexing means having a “steel backbone” (钢铁脊梁), a military without xuexing is like a sword with a dull edge, xuexing is a “force multiplier” (倍增器).
- The precondition for xuexing is loyalty to the Party and love of the nation.
The Problem – Peace Has Corroded the PLA’s Fighting Spirit
The xuexing campaign is animated by fears among Chinese leaders that the PLA lacks the fighting spirit needed to defeat a powerful adversary. Procuring advanced new weapon systems is simply not enough. At a PLA Navy indoctrination session held in August 2015 on the topic of the “new generation of revolutionary soldiers,” one officer pointed out that “the wars of the future will be conflicts between weapon systems. But more importantly, they will be contests of will and courage (xuexing). The gap in weapons systems [between China and its future adversary] is not scary. What is scary is the gap in xuexing.” 
According to the diagnoses of the PLA’s political officers, several factors have caused the military’s xuexing deficit. Most important is the fact that China has not fought a war in several decades. One essay published in People’s Navy argued that past victories, made possible by Chinese xuexing, created the conditions for the peace of today. However, while “peace is what the soldier looks forward to most, it also the greatest enemy.” The problem is not that the PLA’s skills have dulled with disuse, but that the military has not preserved the xuexing that made possible the triumphs of the past. 
As a result, some elements of the PLA have developed “peacetime habits” (和平积习), a derogatory term that pervades the literature of xuexing. According to PLAN officer Zhang Weile, writing in early 2015, the military’s “softness, apathy, and indolence are on the rise. Meanwhile, thoughts of being prepared to fight tonight (今夜准备打仗) have declined, and notions of serving as peacetime soldiers and being peacetime officers have increased. There are many who hide from tasks and fear difficulties.” 
Writing in a February 2016 issue of Air Force News, one essayist declared, “In the context of a peaceful environment that has lasted more than 30 years, the following questions arise: have we succumbed to ‘peacetime habits’ and have we preserved the ‘xuexing’ of the past? The answers to these questions do not inspire optimism.”  In a similar vein, an anonymous commentary published in a June 2015 issue of Rocket Force News, opined, “We have not fought a war in over 30 years. A long period of peace has caused some soldiers to lower their guard (忧患意识), weakened their sense of the need to prepare for war, and reduced their courage (xuexing) and boldness.”  This “lowering of the guard,” at least according to political officers of the PLA Navy’s East Sea Fleet, can be traced to the mistaken belief—once famously held by Deng Xiaoping—that “peace is the mainstream, and China is unlikely to fight a war.” 
In discussions of xuexing, this peacetime state of mind is often contrasted with the spirit that once pervaded the Chinese military. One Air Force News article published in May 2014 under the byline of Hao Jinmao stated bluntly that “a long period of peace has bred the germs of sloth and corroded the mentality of the soldiery and the body of the military. A comparatively stable life has cooled the xuexing that once was boiling.” The author then cited an American sinologist to highlight a now familiar theme: The most important difference between the U.S. and the Chinese militaries is not the technologies and armaments the two sides possess; rather, the biggest difference is that the Chinese military has lost the aggressive fighting spirit that it possessed in the 1950s and 1960s. 
The Solution – Change Organizational Culture
Cultivating xuexing in Chinese soldiers is considered political work. The PLA strives to rectify the military’s perceived lack of fighting spirit through media indoctrination at the national level and in person at the unit level. One common technique is to study the PLA’s glorious past, when xuexing was abundant. This serves both to heighten awareness of the problems of today and instill a sense of pride.
The PLA’s “victory” in the Korean War is often front and center in this narrative. Chinese “volunteers,” poorly armed but filled with fighting spirit (钢少气多), defeated the powerfully-armed but dispirited (钢多气少) American military, “creating a miracle in military history.” Chinese fearlessness made this possible. 
In any conceivable future conflict, the PLA Navy would play the largest role. Since the Korean War was largely an air and land campaign, the service must look elsewhere for proof of past xuexing. According to an April 2015 article commemorating the 66th anniversary of the founding of the PLA Navy, the service has taken part in over 1,200 sea battles (海战), in which it has sunk, damaged, or captured more than 400 enemy vessels and shot down or damaged over 200 enemy aircraft. Examples range from victory over Nationalists forces during the Yijiangshan Island Campaign of 1955 and the downing of American combat aircraft flying near Hainan in 1968. None of these victories would have been possible without xuexing. In this narrative, naval combat with the Vietnamese in 1974 and 1988 goes unmentioned—for Vietnam was not (and is not) a powerful adversary. Inspiration can also be found in peacetime displays of courage. These include everything from the successful efforts to save submarine number 372, nearly lost due to freak ocean conditions during a 2014 patrol in the South China Sea, to the valor of PLA Navy pilot Wang Wei, who died after his aircraft collided with a US Navy EP-3 conducting “close-in” surveillance near Hainan in April 2001. 
After talking about the meaning of xuexing, it must then be forged on the training field, where soldiers can inure themselves to suffering and vanquish their fears. To this end, training exercises must attempt to approximate the stresses of actual combat. If a military with xuexing is comparable to a blade with a sharp edge, realistic peacetime training serves as a whetstone (磨刀石) to hone that edge. 
For the PLA Navy at least, xuexing is also cultivated during actual deployments. Unlike other services, it regularly encounters the future adversary: on, above, and beneath the sea in the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Service leaders see these encounters with American and Japanese forces as a chance for the Navy to “use the enemy to train the troops” (拿敌练兵). To be sure, a big purpose of seeking out and engaging foreign forces in peacetime is to collect intelligence and probe for warfighting advantage. But numerous Chinese sources also recognize that these engagements provide important opportunities to cultivate and test the xuexing of Chinese sailors. 
The aim of this article is not to show that Chinese officers and enlisted are soft and cowardly, or imply that they would show timidity in combat. Indeed, strategists and planners must assume that in wartime the PLA would fight like a bear. It does, however, suggest that Chinese leaders have grave doubts about the ability of the PLA to confront a powerful adversary such as the United States. This conclusion is consistent with research done by Dennis Blasko about the PLA’s recognition that its capabilities are “incompatible” with the tasks assigned to it by the party-state, including fighting a local war under informatized conditions (China Brief, May 9, 2013).
The balance of power is not an objective fact: it exists in the minds of men and women. If Chinese leaders genuinely believe that the PLA lacks fighting spirit, this suggests that they see the current balance of power as more disadvantageous for China than commonly assumed from the mathematical comparisons. For the United States, this would imply correspondingly greater leeway for the use of military persuasion to deter Chinese behavior judged harmful to American interests.
At least for now. For as Blasko points out—and this article confirms—the PLA is striving to remedy its perceived weaknesses. While its success is far from certain, the campaign to cultivate xuexing is a clear measure of Chinese commitment to placing its new military hardware in the hands of soldiers unafraid to use it.
Ryan Martinson is a researcher at the China Maritime Studies Institute of the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island. The views represented in these articles are his alone, and do not reflect the policies or estimates of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government.
1. These points have been distilled from an analysis of 50+ articles published in key service newspapers such as People’s Navy, Air Force News, and Rocket Force News.
2. Xiao Yong, Gao Yi “Deep Blue Voyage Builds a Standard for a Powerful Military,” People’s Navy, August 5, 2015, p. 3.
3. Jie Xuezhu, “Spiritual Blade and Steel Backbone,” People’s Navy, June 19, 2015, p. 4.
4. Zhang Weile, “My Views on Xuexing,” People’s Navy, March 23, 2015, p. 4.
5. Shao Wenjie, “Xuexing, the Soldier’s Most Important Spiritual Quality,” Air Force News, February 15, 2016, p. 4.
6. “Forge the Xuexing and Boldness Needed for Fighting and Winning,” Rocket Force News, June 9, 2015, p. 1.
7. Xu Gangyao, Yu Shufeng, Song Xiaoying, Jing Feiyue, Peng Jingliang, Chen Yinxiang, “Forging a Sword Along the Maritime Frontier,” People’s Navy, August 15, 2014, p. 3.
8. Hao Maojin, “Awaken the Soldier’s Xuexing,” Air Force News, May 20, 2016, p. 2.
9. Mei Yunlong, “A Youth with Xuexing is the Most Beautiful Kind,” People’s Navy, April 12, 2013, p. 4.
10. This narrative claims that the collision was a result of dangerous maneuvering by the American aircraft. See Zhang Qingbao, “Xuexing—the PLA Navy’s Bright Spiritual History,” People’s Navy, April 21, 2015, p. 4.
11. Ding Rui, “Growing Up in a Tempest,” People’s Navy, August 12, 2015, p. 2.
12. See, for instance, Wang Qiangjiang, Cai Shanfei, “Use the Spirit of the Sword to Cultivate Guardians of the Sea and Air,” People’s Navy, January 13, 2016, p. 4.