by MATTHEW GAULT
Militaries around the world love hamming it up. The United States has military marching bands. Russia’s Red Army Choir delights the Internet. And China’s People’s Liberation Army performs elaborate martial arts stunts.
It’s certainly dramatic. The soldiers break boards with their heads and fists, throw needles through glass and even smash bricks onto their heads. But Beijing is gradually bringing the kung fu displays to an end.
Chinese military media outlet PLA Daily reported on Jan. 15 that one naval marine brigade will no longer focus on martial arts. The announcement is part of a broader trend in the PLA to modernize and cut back on ridiculous showboating.
The Chinese military has long given kung fu demonstrations. When a foreign dignitary visits, or a party official comes to inspect the troops, soldiers perform feats of martial prowess worthy of any low-budget ’80s action movie.
In addition to breaking boards and smashing bricks, the demonstrations include no-joke motorcycle stunts, which involve changing the tire of a side-car while speeding down a track at 70 miles per hour.
It’s all very impressive, but totally impractical for an actual shooting war. Which is why a political committee for the marine brigade decided earlier this month to no longer require soldiers take part in such events.
“I am finally liberated now,” marine Wang Xiaohui told the PLA Daily. According to the report, Wang was a martial artist before he joined the military.
He spent a lot of his time in the marines showing off his ability to break a board with his head. He spent so much time working on stunts that he didn’t learn other basic military duties.
Now the marine and his fellow troops will have more time to focus on less theatrical but far more practical exercises. What are they? Long-range sniping, live-fire training and low-altitude parachuting.
The PLA Daily is a mouthpiece for the Chinese military, so it’s hard to suss out fact from fiction. But if true, the report points to a broader trend in the PLA to scale back on entertainment in favor of more realistic, modern tactics.
A special operations brigade toned down its martial arts demonstrations in 2014. “Going to war isn’t a performance,” brigade commander Zang Aijun said.
The same year, the South China Morning Post reported that the Chinese military was phasing out most of its entertainment soldiers.
The PLA once maintained 30 troupes of 10,000 entertainers. These soldiers were acrobats, singers and dancers. The troupes raised morale and spread the message of the PLA.
But critics saw corruption seeping into the troupes. A politically-connected singer could join the military, perform for a few years and retire in comfort and safety.
It’s a desirable career, and a potential path to fame. Chinese Pres. Xi Jinping’s wife holds the ranks of major general in a military entertainment troupe.
Too much levity can be a liability. The Chinese military is huge, but also a paper tiger. Beijing has too few allies, too much outdated equipment, and its officer corps has serious problems with graft and alcoholism.
China has steadily increased defense spending in a bid to modernize its armed forces, but spending alone won’t solve its problems. To do that, China has to do something about corruption, and divert resources away from frivolity.
“The new measure will help the PLA develop into a standard combat force,” Ding Shufan, a professor at Taiwan’s National Chengchi University, told the PLA Daily. “The kung fu stunts may look cool, but they are already outdated in modern wars today.”