Argument

China’s Military Claims to Be Virus-Free

Officially, not a single PLA soldier has been infected.

People's Liberation Army soldiers
People's Liberation Army soldiers march to their barracks opposite the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Feb. 24. Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images
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U.S. observers have widely criticized China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) for its lackluster initial response to the 2019 coronavirus outbreak. After the deployment of hundreds of PLA medics and other support personnel into Wuhan and other cities, those critiques are now less tenable. PLA personnel have been on the front lines of the crisis for the past two months, reprising roles they have played during other emergencies, such as the 2002-2004 SARS crisis and the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, and providing relief to stressed local health systems.

The question now is whether the PLA has been forthcoming about its ability to withstand the withering effects of the virus on its own personnel. On March 3, a Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman claimed that not a single PLA service member—out of a force of some 2 million—had been infected, pointing to the effectiveness of the PLA’s force protection measures (such as avoidance of large gatherings).

That seems highly unlikely. A  strong circumstantial case can be made that the PLA is unlikely to have been spared from infections that have ravaged the country since the end of last year. Concealment of a disease making its way through parts of the PLA, if true, would underscore a military highly sensitive to the release of details on its current readiness. This would be a sign of weakness, not confidence.

The PLA under President Xi Jinping’s leadership has cultivated an image of confidence and determination in its ability to carry out the most dangerous assignments. Such self-assurance has been broadcast to domestic and international audiences through high-octane recruitment ads, films such as Wolf Warrior 2, and grandiose military parades. Images of Chinese troops boldly deploying to Wuhan over the past two months, and doing so without falling victim to the insidious virus, confirm this narrative of the PLA as a force to be reckoned with.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

China’s official denial that any PLA members had been infected became instant fodder for the Hong Kong rumor mill, which cited claims that a group of 200 soldiers attached to the PLA’s airborne corps, based near Wuhan, were quarantined after one had become infected, while 300 others were quarantined on the island of Hainan after a submariner was stricken. Others asserted that the virus was running rampant through both the air force and the People’s Armed Police, and that “isolation houses” for military personnel had been set up in numerous locations.

Unverified reports circulating in Hong Kong tabloids should be taken with a large grain of salt. Some of the specific allegations may prove exaggerated, distorted, or untrue. However, there are several reasons to suspect that the PLA has likely concealed at least some cases.

is the first China’s track record of obfuscation in similar circumstances. During the SARS crisis, Beijing initially denied that any service members had been afflicted. Only when a PLA whistleblower came forward to the Western press with revelations that hundreds of patients were being treated in military hospitals did Chinese officials change their tune. Ultimately, the World Health Organization verified that about 8 percent of China’s SARS cases were military personnel.

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Then consider the concentration of PLA personnel in the vicinity of Wuhan, which has been the epicenter of the virus in mainland China. PLA units in and around the city include airborne troops, a reserve anti-aircraft artillery battery, academies of all four services, and the central depot of the Joint Logistic Support Force, which was established in 2016 as the main provider of general purpose supplies for the entire army. (The location reflects Wuhan’s status as a critical rail juncture.) In such an army town, it is unlikely that PLA members—including reserve and militia personnel mixed in with society and active-duty troops on leave during the Spring Festival holiday—were completely unaffected.

It beggars belief, given the number of Chinese military medical personnel on the front lines of the pandemic, that they all avoided infection. According to Chinese media, more than 10,000 PLA health care workers have deployed, including more than 4,000 to operate makeshift hospitals in Wuhan. Others have played supporting roles involving contact with local populations. China’s National Health Commission has confirmed that more than 3,000 civilian medics have been infected, with more than a dozen deaths reported. It is dubious to think that PLA doctors, nurses, and technicians are so much more proficient than their civilian counterparts that they have been able to avoid any cases whatsoever.

Concealment of infections in the PLA would signal continuing roadblocks to Chinese military transparency. Chinese officials have touted an increasingly transparent PLA, most recently through a lengthy white paper on military modernization. Yet U.S. scholars have argued that PLA transparency has been at best uneven. One barrier has been the PLA’s tendency to avoid sharing embarrassing information with civilian leaders, or even the lack of effective communication between different parts of the PLA, which was a reason for its secrecy during the SARS crisis. PLA officials today—aware of Xi’s willingness to sack anyone accused of mishandling the crisis—may be hiding information about infections in order to avoid the fallout if top leaders were to become aware of those failures.

Another obstacle to transparency is the perception that revealing too much damaging information about the PLA’s shortcomings would have negative domestic and international repercussions. Domestically, Beijing has utilized the military as a tool not only to fight the pandemic, but also to reassure a nervous population. One PLA Daily report with the headline “The PLA Has Arrived!” boasted that “the people’s army under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is just like a raging flame, bringing confidence, strength, and hope to the people.” Confirmation that the disease is spreading in the PLA would undercut that message and raise deeper questions about the party’s ability to manage the crisis: If the last line of defense fails, then what?

Externally, Beijing relies on the military to deter its rivals and respond to provocations. One of the PLA’s clearest official messages is that the crisis has actually increased the PLA’s readiness by providing real-world experience for thousands of troops—an argument that has some validity. However, acknowledging PLA infections at the same time (especially in combat units such as the airborne corps or on submarines) would complicate that argument and, at least from Beijing’s perspective, might embolden regional antagonists to press their claims in the South or East China seas, or otherwise exploit the crisis for their own benefit.

This is not to imply that the PLA has been completely opaque about its own weaknesses. One exception is a wide acknowledgment of failures among PLA commanders and staff officers to prepare for future wars—a theme that has been broadcast in PLA media as a way to reduce complacency and stimulate positive changes. However, the line seems to be drawn at providing details on current readiness. The PLA does not, for instance, disclose information on the current manning levels of individual units. Obfuscation in cases like SARS and perhaps the 2019 coronavirus provides additional evidence of a PLA wariness to reveal information that could reduce confidence in its current ability to respond to domestic crises or deter foreign rivals.

Such an attitude stands in contrast with the U.S. military, which has already publicized specific details on cases in the ranks. While there are obviously limits to U.S. disclosures on privacy and national-security grounds, the relative openness reflects both effective coordination between civilian and military officials and confidence in the military’s ability to continue operating effectively at a time of enormous distraction. The PLA’s need to project an air of impunity—and immunity—in the latest crisis should be taken as a sign of nervousness about its ability to complete other missions while consumed with a domestic crisis. Such a conclusion would point to a PLA that still has some distance to go in its quest to become what Xi calls a “world-class” military.

Joel Wuthnow is a research fellow at the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the U.S. National Defense University. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

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