Swaggering Chinese military no match for common folk

February 07, 2013

By KENJI MINEMURA/ Correspondent

BEIJING--The uniform of the People's Liberation Army automatically accords its members elite status. But all-too-often, this sense of privilege goes to the heads of those who wear it.

In supposedly egalitarian China, incidents of PLA members flaunting their power, and expecting common folk to kowtow in reverence, are increasingly making waves.

Public anger over arrogant behavior by those in uniform has caused alarm bells to ring in the military hierarchy.

Several cases have come to light.

One incident that occurred on Dec. 2, 2011, clearly gave the communist leadership in Beijing a fright.

That was the day a mob surrounded a military vehicle in Lanzhou, Gansu province, western China. The crowd eventually swelled to 1,000, and angry citizens dragged the six occupants out and tipped the vehicle over.

Some stunned Chinese Communist Party officials drew parallels to the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. The attack against a military vehicle was the first such incident to be seen since the brutal crackdown in Beijing, they said.

Here's what happened: The four-wheel-drive vehicle, with a license plate that read "Lan A," meaning it belonged to the headquarters of the Lanzhou Military Region, was traveling down a main street teeming with families.

Witnesses said six staff members with a military hospital--all in military uniform--were looking for a place to park so they could dine at a restaurant.

Along the way, they found their path blocked by a street stall. One of the occupants got out of the vehicle and yelled at the man in his 40s who was operating the stand.

"Take a good look at the license plate," the officer said. "Do you understand whose car this is?"

He then punched the vendor, injuring him in the right eye and neck.

The attack infuriated passers-by. They were incensed by the attitude of six military officers behaving as if they could do whatever they wanted simply because they were in uniform.

In no time, the crowd swelled to around 1,000 people.

"Get out of the car," one of them shouted. "Apologize to him."

Agitators in the crowd then shattered the vehicle windows, grabbing at the occupants to drag them out.

Loud cheering erupted when the vehicle was turned over so it lay on its roof.

The incident sent shock waves through the military, which ordered an immediate investigation.

Three days later, the occupants, along with their superiors, were handed disciplinary discharges or suspended from duty.

Other cases involving people in uniform assaulting ordinary folk include: a cabin attendant being punched for "the way she put hand luggage" away during a domestic flight from Guangzhou in August 2012; a female money collector being struck when she tried to collect a parking fee in Xian in January 2012; and an elderly motorcyclist having a gun trained on the rider's head for "blocking the way" in Xiangyang, Hubei province, in May 2011.

All the officers involved in these incidents were disciplined after witnesses reported the matter to the authorities.

The Asahi Shimbun's Chinese General Bureau in Beijing attempted to grasp first-hand how military vehicles are exempted from obeying traffic regulations by monitoring activity at an intersection in Changan Avenue, central Beijing, one recent morning.

It found that 33 military vehicles ignored a sign prohibiting a left turn between 7 a.m. and 10 a.m. But not a single vehicle was stopped by police officers at the intersection.

"We have no choice but to look the other way because we don't want trouble," said a police source.

Leaders at the highest echelons of the Communist Party fervently believe that the PLA, the party's military arm, must have the overwhelming support of the public. That goes hand in hand with Communist Party ideology about how the Chinese civil war was won.

A researcher at a defense think tank expressed alarm at the public's loss of faith in the military, citing an old Chinese saying that the latter needs the former "like water for a fish."

"It will be the demise of our military if it loses trust of the public," the researcher said.

By KENJI MINEMURA/ Correspondent
  • 1
submit to reddit
An online image of a mob that overturned a military vehicle in Lanzhou, Gansu province, on Dec. 2, 2012. (Asahi Shinbum file photo)

An online image of a mob that overturned a military vehicle in Lanzhou, Gansu province, on Dec. 2, 2012. (Asahi Shinbum file photo)

  • An online image of a mob that overturned a military vehicle in Lanzhou, Gansu province, on Dec. 2, 2012. (Asahi Shinbum file photo)

More AJW