Will a viral video of brutal hazing undermine domestic trust in China's military?
- By Liz CarterLiz Carter is assistant editor at Foreign Policy's Tea Leaf Nation. She lived for several years in Beijing, China, where she wrote and translated three Chinese-English textbooks and studied contemporary Chinese literature at Peking University. Since returning to the United States, she has co-authored a book on subversive linguistic trends on the Chinese Internet and been interviewed about developments in China by the Christian Science Monitor, Forbes, the Washington Post's WorldViews, and PRI's The World.
Shocking violence, caught on tape, has shown many Chinese a darker side of their peacetime military. On Dec. 9, the website of liberal outlet Beijing News posted a video of violent hazing among soldiers based in the small inland city of Wuhai in Inner Mongolia. As the clip spread online and climbed to become the top search item on Baidu, China’s largest search engine, many viewers remarked that the men caught on camera belied the protective, even benevolent image of the armed forces so often promoted in official media.
In the 15-minute video, shirtless soldiers in camouflage pants assault young men who stand at attention until they are knocked down — then resume their position to endure more beatings as soon as their attackers retreat. At different points in the troubling clip, one aggressor repeatedly bangs a new soldier’s head against a wall; another hits a recruit with a wooden stick until it breaks; several soldiers whip the men with belts. Interspersed with the abuse are eerily tender moments: One assailant dabs blood from a victim’s face with a handkerchief, while another pats the man he has beaten reassuringly on the shoulder before resuming his attacks. Through its verified account on Sina Weibo, China’s Twitter, the Wuhai Municipal Firefighters Division confirmed the veracity of the video, which it dated to June 2012, and announced that those responsible for the beatings had been suspended and awaited investigation.
The video went viral online partly because the soldiers shown were part of a firefighting branch of the People’s Armed Police, China’s domestic military. One Weibo user lamented that "we are relying on this group of hooligans to protect our homes and country." Another asked, "What use is it to have people who are this cruel to their own compatriots?" State media has long described military personnel as "the most lovable people." But after watching the video, one viewer wrote that the clip "has made me see these ‘most loveable people’ in a completely new light." Likely because of the vociferous online reaction, the clip disappeared from Sina, a major Internet portal, and Weibo users complained that many of their comments about the video, which numbered in the tens of thousands, had met the same fate.
A handful of web commenters users defended the breaking in of new soldiers as "an open secret" in militaries around the world, including U.S. forces, where hazing has survived under the moniker "corrective training." One Chinese web commenter echoed that rhetoric, labeling the Wuhai abuse a form of "training," while another called hazing a "longstanding" practice in the armed services. But most Chinese commenters felt that the violence in Inner Mongolia had crossed the line. One Weibo user wrote that hazing might make the soldiers tougher, but it would not make them better: "If this is how they learn, they’ll end up bullying ordinary people in the same way."