Chinese social media can't agree whether to blame an out-of-control military or spoiled youth.
- By Alexa OlesenAlexa Olesen was a foreign correspondent for the Associate Press in Beijing for eight years and has been a reporter for Foreign Policy. She now works for ChinaSix, a New York-based consulting firm.
A recent ugly brawl between paramilitary drill instructors and high schoolers in central China has exposed a fault line between China’s military and its people. The bloody Aug. 24 incident, which landed 40 freshmen in the hospital with bone fractures and gashes, is being parsed on China’s active social web as either evidence of the wholesale corruption of the Chinese military, or the hopeless degeneration of China’s youth.
The conflict occurred during a week of military training at Huangcang High School in Hunan’s Longshan, a county of half a million people known for its karst caves. (The bulk of Chinese military recruits are rural youth and the unemployed, not students, but military training sessions are routine at high schools and colleges across China.) The incident was traced back to what several media outlets describe as a playful tiff between a female student and a drill instructor. The liberal Beijing News reported Aug. 26 that the girl’s classmates came to her defense and ended up pinning the instructor in what was then still a lighthearted dispute. According to the report, that impertinence led to punitive pushups later in the day for the class, and when students balked, other drill instructors ended up attacking the male students. A teacher who tried to intervene was also reportedly beaten.
The Beijing News quoted one student as saying that drill instructors had been drinking, and its story came with photos of a student in military fatigues cradling a hand with bloody, mangled fingers while a tearful female classmate stood next to him. But some facts are contested: Xinhua, China’s official news agency, reported that some of the more serious injuries were caused by students running up to the fourth floor of a school building and punching out glass windows in a rage.
There’s also deep disagreement about the meaning of the incident. On the popular military-themed forum Tiexue.net, sentiment toward the incident was decidedly pro-military, reflecting a widely held belief that modern Chinese youth are spoiled and egotistical. Chinese commonly blame those perceived traits on the country’s strict family planning policy, which for more than three decades has limited most families to just one child. "Minor injuries; what’s the big deal?" asked one reader, adding that Chinese kids today are "too squeamish," and the solution was to toughen them up with more drills. "Otherwise, everyone will be a sissy, and who will protect the motherland?" Another acknowledged that differing accounts made it hard to judge who was in the wrong. But, he continued: "It’s a fact that kids today are hard to manage." He wrote they were "little emperors" and "little princesses," slang terms used to describe spoiled children. The best way to understand them, he continued, was to watch the 2007 National Geographic television program Brat Camp China, which followed a group of underachieving Chinese youth through a tough-love military-style boot camp that had them hiking up to 25 miles per day.
So what do the proverbial brats think? On Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform whose users skew young, the military bore most of the invective. Although the drill instructors in Longshan were from the People’s Armed Forces, the arm of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) responsible for training and recruitment, the Weiborati viewed them as emblematic of the entire PLA. The Chinese military’s image has been tarnished in recent months by public announcements of graft charges against high-ranking officers Gen. Xu Caihou and Lt. Gen. Gu Junshan in June and April, respectively. One commentator wrote that the influence of officers like Gu and Xu had created a lack of discipline and pockets of moral decay in the military. "I think the drill instructors assigned to do the training at Huangcang High were these kind of people," he wrote. Underneath a news article about the brawl from Huasheng Online, a news portal run by the state-run provincial paper Hunan Daily, another reader called the drill instructors "scum." A more lighthearted but no less damning appraisal came from someone who said the drills in school were useless "except as a way to get to know other freshmen." He argued that student training sessions should be abolished.
For its part, the Longshan government shied away from blaming anyone and described the incident in an Aug. 25 statement as "unpleasantness." It pledged to fully investigate and prosecute any wrongdoers. It also managed to find a bright side, noting that during the melee nobody used "knives, glass, or other weapons."
Shujie Leng contributed research.