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PLA management challenged by digital networks
2007-07-18 00:00

It was once the philosophy that the army should make a young man tougher. Complaints could be dismissed out of hand and dissatisfied recruits learned to live with their lot, believing it was all part of the soldier's life.

So when Private Zhou Zhengtao went to the hospital of his People's Liberation Army (PLA) division in Beijing, he wasn't surprised that the doctor and nurse treated him with disdain.

"A cold reception from military hospital staff is just part of life for low-ranking soldiers," says Zhou.

As was his squad leader's casual disregard of his complaint.

But then Zhou turned to the military intranet.

He e-mailed a complaint to the division commander. To his surprise, the commander ordered the hospital staff to treat the soldiers properly.

"My squad leader told me to keep it to myself, but with the intranet, my complaint reached the division commander directly," says Zhou.


In 2001, local area network (LAN) connections entered the barracks, allowing soldiers to read news and study military websites, and watch movies on-line and download music.

Many units opened a "senior officer's mailbox" through which soldiers can directly e-mail commanding officers, either under their real names or anonymously.

"Before, if I wanted my opinion heard by the division commander, I had to report to my squad leader; if he thought it necessary, he would report to his superior and so on till it reached the commander, but it would be lucky to survive filtering through six lower officers," says Wang Yangyang, a private with the Beijing Military Area.

"We used to just keep our mouths shut because some problems are so common that mid-level officers can ignore them and soldiers just learn to live with them, but now everyone's willing to speak on-line," Wang says.

The PLA has encouraged anonymous mailboxes, accessible only to the sender and recipient, with the sender remaining nameless, for sensitive issues. Officers answer questions such as "Why can't soldiers use cell phones?" and "How are senior officers evaluated?"


Jin Chan, a brigadier of Nanjing Military Area, says he checks his online mailbox every day. Once he found a message, asking for senior officials families to be banned from the enlisted men's apartments.

Visiting spouses of officials had too long occupied the apartments that were supposed to house soldiers' spouses and families, complained Wang Shaojie.

"We married men often have to dissuade our wives from visiting because there are no rooms," he wrote.

Brigadier Jin summoned all head officials in his unit to discuss Wang's complaint, and they agreed the soldiers' welfare must come first.

Within a month Wang called his wife and asked her to visit.

"I never expected such a speedy response," Wang says.

Beijing Military Area official Yang Junxing says, "If we want to be respected, we have to respect the soldiers and respond promptly with well-considered replies."

The network has changed traditional army administration.

"Now we hear what the soldiers are really thinking. Soldiers are more willing to talk about what's bothering them and to give us advice," says Gong Fangbing, an official in the Academy of Military Sciences.


Wen Jun, an official in the Beijing Military Area, said the direct link between low and high ranks is putting greater pressure on junior officers.

"Junior officers used to stifle negative things and report only what they thought would please their superiors. Now they have to ensure the men are really happy, otherwise they might get into trouble," Wen says.

Today's young soldiers, often only children, are more outspoken and independent thinking than previous generations.

"In our company, almost half the men have graduated from or are attending college or professional academies. The rest have work or business experience," says Captain Zhang Xiongfei, of Jinan Military Area's Red Army Division.

"Soldiers with knowledge and experience tell us what they think of our daily management and training," Zhang says.

"We encourage soldiers to express themselves because they can provide helpful advice in our administrative affairs," says Zhou Heping, the commissar of the division.


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