While the contagious phase of COVID-19 may ebb and the communist regime may deny the PLA’s role in the battle, the world may not see it in the same light as before
The sudden apparition of Coronavirus on the world stage was unexpected for Chinese watchers. However, it is bound to have deeper implications than the Tiananmen massacre for the future of the Middle Kingdom. Even if the situation stabilises in the next few months, or by the end of the year, the community of nations may not see it in the same light. Undoubtedly, the role of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will continue to be discussed for long after the contagious phase of COVID-19 is behind us. From day one, a PLA unit, the Joint Logistics Support Force (JLSF), has been at the centrestage of what the communist party of China called the “people’s war” against the “demon” virus.
When I say day one, it means nearly two months after the deadly virus surfaced in Wuhan. The communist authorities were lax between December 1, 2019, when The Lancet’s epidemiological retrospective investigation showed the first confirmed case with symptoms of the novel Coronavirus pneumonia, and January 23, 2020, when the JLSF troops first arrived on the scene.
But what is JLSF? The body was created on January 11, 2016, as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s in-depth military reform measure. According to Xinhua, the JLSF “comprises the support forces for inventory and warehousing, medical services, transport, force projection, oil pipelines, engineering and construction management, reserve assets management and procurement.” Coincidentally, it is based in Wuhan. The first task given to the JLSF of the Central Military Commission (CMC) was to build the Huoshenshan Hospital, an emergency speciality field facility that accommodates 1,000 beds. Believe it or not, it was constructed in just eight days.
At first, 450 Army personnel were flown in to Wuhan. They were joined in by 1,400 military medical staff on February 3 and 2,600 additional medical personnel from the armed forces on February 13. Today more than 10,000 troops (including the militia also serving under the CMC) have been deployed.
Though the Generals were probably reluctant in the beginning, it became clearer to the Communist leadership in Beijing that only the PLA could save China. On January 29, Xi, who is also the CMC Chairman, had to personally intervene to exhort the military to save the nation. And the party. He ordered the military to win the battle, emphasising the importance of “keeping in mind the purpose and carrying the burdens.” He exhorted the troops “to keep the original spirit,” adding, “Our Army is a child soldier of the people, breathing with the people, sharing the same fate and connecting hearts.”
The PLA had to face its own problems. The crew of the Type 054A multi-role frigate, Changzho, carrying anti-submarine missiles had to be quarantined. The Navy admitted the fear of an outbreak and the captain of the frigate, Yu Song Qiu, and a number of sailors were placed on lockdown. Shore leave rules for crew members aboard the Shandong were tightened to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on China’s second aircraft carrier. By the end of January, there were 54 declared cases of virus in Sanya in Hainan Island where the Shandong is based.
At the same time, the CMC started regulating the relations between the PLA and the civilians: Thirteen forms of activities were banned, including receiving money/securities and asking non-military organisations/individuals to provide money or commodities. Corrupt officers were warned: No illicit enrichment would be permitted.
Probably sensing the lack of enthusiasm on the part of the PLA to participate in the risky operations, the CMC opened a life insurance scheme for those personnel going to the “frontline.” It further declared that those, who would die combating the virus, would be named “martyr” by the Chinese State.
But the real challenge for the JLSF was to control the spread of the virus in Wuhan, which is the strategic hub for the defence industry — it has more than 350 research centres and industrial institutes as well as 1,700 hi-tech enterprises covering aerospace, satellites, rocketry and biotechnology. The future of all these institutions remained undecided.
According to Xinhua, China had to postpone its military recruitment drive, scheduled for the first half of this year to support the country’s epidemic prevention and control work. Wu Qian, the spokesperson for the Ministry of National Defence, asserted: “Approved by the State Council and the CMC, the postponed conscription will be combined with that of the second half, which will run from August 1 to September 30.” Though Wu said that the overall annual recruitment targets would remain unchanged, experts believe that the PLA could be badly affected.
This was also the time when an enigmatic personage appeared on the scene. Chen Wei, a 53-year-old leading Chinese epidemiologist and a Major-General in PLA, is known for developing the world’s first gene-based vaccine on Ebola in 2014. She was also apparently involved in combating the SARS outbreak.
According to the International Business Times, the controversial Major-General injected herself and her six-member team with an untested Coronavirus vaccine. She has created quite a stir on Weibo by her radical approach, especially after she was posted in the Wuhan lab from where the COVID-19 strain could have escaped (the Chinese authorities denied this).
Was this just a gesture to prove her loyalty to Chairman Xi? Just a month ago, Chen had taken over the controversial Wuhan lab, originally a civilian research lab, partly funded by the French Government. When he visited the research facilities in February 2017, Bernard Cazeneuve, the then French Prime Minister, declared: “France is proud and happy to have contributed to the construction of the first P4 high bio-safety laboratory in China. …This cutting-edge tool constitutes a central element in the achievement of the 2004 inter-governmental agreement on Franco-Chinese cooperation in the prevention and fight against emerging infectious diseases.” Something obviously went wrong.
For India, it is important to analyse the implications of the PLA’s involvement in the battle against the virus. Will the JLSF emerge stronger? Can the PLA become a threat to the party, just in case the “people’s war” against the “virus” is won by the Army? Will it re-emerge stronger despite Xi’s efforts to restrict the Army’s influence? What will be the implications for the PLA’s preparedness on the borders with India? It may be too early to answer these questions but even though PLA activities on the Tibetan plateau have reduced due to the outbreak, intrusions were reported recently from Naku-la, south of the watershed in Northern Sikkim, a border said to be “settled” by China. It is quite ominous.
(The writer is an expert on India-China relations)