Lots in a name: reshuffled PLA units resist Xi’s reforms

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A man walks past a poster about the People's Liberation Army featuring a portrait of President Xi Jinping. Photo: Reuters / Thomas Peter

The incorporation of China’s 1.5-million-strong paramilitary police force into the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission in December wrapped up President Xi Jinping’s reforms of the military, which saw the overhaul and creation of theater commands and aggressive disarmament, as well as the re-designations of military units nationwide.

Party mouthpieces have been told to laud the achievements of Xi’s measures for a leaner, more agile PLA in their year-end commentaries, but many such initiatives have been met with stiff resistance from generals and soldiers alike once they were roll out.

A visitor watches a video of President Xi Jinping talking at an exhibition in Beijing about China's military achievements, on October 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Jason Lee

A visitor watches a video of President Xi Jinping talking at an exhibition in Beijing about China’s military achievements, on October 10, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Jason Lee

The effectiveness of Xi’s reforms may be hard to gauge, unless there is full-blown war that can fully test the combat readiness of the People’s Liberation Army, a force that has never been engaged in any serious conflict since the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War.

Yet some observers have raised questions about some of Xi’s reforms, citing one particular plan to re-designate and rename PLA units, which has evoked quite a commotion among troops.

The codes and names of units are closely intertwined with historic honors, traditions and ranks, and numerous soldiers and veterans, regardless of how loyal and patriotic they are, feel they will lose their collective identity and sense of belonging once their brigade or regiment is renamed, or merged with another unit, military commentator Andrei Chang said in an interview by Kanwa Defense Review.

“Xi has the guts to reshuffle the PLA ranks and hierarchy and scrap names and codes that have been in use for decades, something his predecessors like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping all sought to avoid … but he may lack the caution and prudence needed to ensure a smooth reform while keeping morale high.… It’s just like shutting down fraternity clubs in the name of enhancing discipline and management, and all of sudden everyone is up in arms,” Chang said.

Xi’s rationale is to combat sectarianism and ensure equal funding and resources to all groups and units, but the reform has obviously backfired at regional levels because of the headstrong way it was carried out.

A soldier facing to Tiananmen Gate stands guard outside in Beijing

A soldier facing the Tiananmen Gate stands guard outside the Great Hall of the People. The National Flag Guard battalion was been dismissed in Xi’s military reforms. Photo: Reuters / Jason Lee

For instance, the “National Flag Guard” battalion tasked with daily flag-raising ceremonies in Tiananmen Square in Beijing has been absorbed into the PLA’s Guard of Honor, despite widespread resentment among the soldiers and even tourists who like to see the flag-raising and changing-of-the-guard rituals.

The announcement was made right on the 35th anniversary of the battalion, and some soldiers reportedly refused to acknowledge the order of transfer issued by the Central Military Commission.

Some former generals of the now-defunct divisions and regiments also refused to be transferred to new, merged units and opted to work-to-rule as a silent protest, as seen in units under the Jinan Military Region and Lanzhou Military Regions. Both were disbanded in the reorganization of 2015-16, and incorporated into bigger, newly created theater commands.

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