What was presumed to be an earthquake relief operation led by civilians quickly became an all-out campaign by the People’s Liberation Army to show off its mobilization capability and high-tech weapons with an over-the-top propaganda theme — “The PLA Loves The People.”
A 7.0-magnitude earthquake Saturday struck the city of Ya’an in the foothills of the Himalayas. Nearly 200 people were killed and about 1,500 remain hospitalized.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang rushed to the province of Sichuan within hours of the quake to inspect the damage and organize relief efforts.
But the world’s largest army — with 2.3 million troops — quickly upstaged the premier and civilian disaster relief agencies by organizing a spectacular show of force.
Within the first hour after the quake, the Chengdu Military Regional Command, one of the seven regional headquarters in charge of military affairs for the country’s southwestern provinces, dispatched 2,000 troops in trucks to the quake’s epicenter.
Within one day after the quake, more than 10,000 troops were ordered into the area to conduct door-to-door search-and-rescue, providing an impressive display of the army’s long-range transport capabilities.
On the second day after the quake, another 8,000 troops were sent in to direct relief operations.
It soon became apparent that the military service branches were competing to upstage each other.
One day after the quake, air force chief Gen. Ma Xiaotian flew to the remote city with a sizable entourage. He offered rapid airlift support for troops from other branches of the military.
He also managed to commandeer the Chinese satellite agencies loosely under his command and took over five military satellites to provide real-time monitoring and surveillance for the ground troops in the Ya’an area.
The state news agency Xinhua reported that China’s Beidou global positioning system, operated by the military’s General Staff in conjunction with the air force, also took part in the relief effort.
Not to be outdone, the navy announced its efforts. Within hours of the quake, a navy’s classified surveillance plane — code-named “Certificate of Merit” and loaded with hush-hush remote sensors — was sent into the quake-stricken area to provide a damage assessment and other information to analysts at the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Xinhua reported that the mini-drones scanned the earthquake area from at least 12 angles using live video transmitted from the epicenter.
The ground troops also dispatched at least 48 transport helicopters to move troops and the wounded. Many of the helicopters are Russian-made Mi-171 transports with heavy-lifting VK-2500 engines that make the aircraft suitable for high-altitude-terrain operations.
China maintains large internal security forces known as the People’s Armed Police, or more recently the Armed Police Force, which is under the command of the PLA.
The armed police’s primary mission is to prevent and suppress any domestic challenge to the communist government and any social disturbances deemed dangerous to the stability of the regime. Within hours of the quake, more than 7,500 of its troops were dispatched to Ya’an to watch for any possible “mass incidents.”
PLA headquarters’ major operational departments, including the General Staff and General Logistics, issued orders to take swift action in support of the relief operation.
But it was the General Political Department, the most powerful branch of the headquarters, that was the busiest. The department is in charge of propaganda, indoctrination and political studies of the PLA.
The PLA Daily, the official military newspaper, went into high gear to amplify relief operations with quick updates on its website.
The General Political Department issued instructions Saturday to soldiers and officers, urging them to “resolutely implement the instructions of Xi Jinping, general secretary of the Communist Party of China’s Central Committee and chairman of the Central Military Commission.”
To highlight the maximum glorification of the PLA role in relief efforts, the civilian State Council’s General Office on Monday issued a separate order banning all local and voluntary rescue efforts by all individuals and groups other than the military-led operations.
“All regions, departments, units and organizations should not organize rescue initiatives on their own, and are not allowed to go to the quake-stricken area,” the order bluntly stated.
After the 2008 earthquake in a nearby area, many volunteers and spontaneous aid groups were severely harassed by the police, with several people jailed for organizing grass-roots rescue and relief efforts.
Tan Zuoren, a writer, rights activist and environmentalist, is one of the more prominent figures jailed on charges of “inciting subversion of state power” after the 2008 quake in nearby Wenchuan. Ironically, he was serving a five-year jail sentence above the epicenter in Ya’an when the earthquake occurred Saturday.
• Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com and @yu_miles.