Questions arise over need for PLA song and dance troupes

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 September, 2013, 4:54am

A recent order curtailing the activities of the PLA's pampered entertainers is widely seen as a move to ease discontent among regular soldiers and to shore up support for President Xi Jinping's drive to cut extravagance in the military.

Military entertainers, many of whom enjoy high honorary ranks and are stars in their own right, will need approval before taking part in non-military performances, according to the document released last week by the General Political Department of the People's Liberation Army.

Troupe members have been told not to appear on civilian talent shows hosted by local TV stations or perform at venues such as lounges or karaoke bars that would tarnish the PLA's image.

The circular also bans them from signing with entertainment agents or setting up studios for profit, engaging in blatant self-promotion or activities that deceive audiences. Those who disobey the new orders face severe punishment, according to the circular.

The PLA has included performers among its ranks since its founding in the late 1920s. As members of propaganda teams, performers played a key role in boosting morale. But the need to employ so many performers in peacetime has become a source of contention. Mainland media say there are about 10,000 entertainment soldiers now.

In recent months, the issue has come to a head after entertainers were implicated in a series of scandals. One case involved a well-known army singer who drove flashy cars and repeatedly broke traffic rules in Beijing; another involved a 14-year-old dance student in Henan province who was found to be on the payroll of a local army troupe as an entertainment soldier; and a third centred on the recent trial of the teenage son of renowned army singers Li Shuangjiang and Meng Ge for alleged gang rape.

As the reputations of the once highly esteemed PLA entertainers grow tarnished, analysts say the new rules aim to address the public discontent. The campaign can also boost Xi, who is eager to foster his credentials as a corruption-buster.

PLA entertainers have also been ordered to spend at least one month a year in barracks, and that from now on, new recruits will be subjected to stringent political screening.

The circular made clear high-level civilian members of entertainment troupes would no longer enjoy honorary ranks. Peng Liyuan , China's first lady who is a famous folk singer, will no longer be referred as a "civil major general" - an informal title roughly on par with its military equivalent. The same will apply to Song Zuying , another well-known diva. Both will be referred to as "directors" of their art troupes, Peng at the Song and Dance Troupe for the PLA General Political Department, and Song at the Song and Dance Troupe for the PLA Navy.

Unlike military officers, civilian officers do not attain military rank. But because of the slight differences in military uniforms and pay, people tend to refer to civil officers by the equivalent military rank.

An article in the Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with the People's Daily, said it had always been "a major headache" maintaining discipline among performance troupes, and that many regular soldiers resented the quick promotion and pay packages of performers.

"Outside the army, some people think entertainment soldiers popular stars funded out of the military budget while avoiding having to fight in times of war," the Times said.

"Military entertainers are a part of the PLA and should abide by the same disciplinary rules as everyone else," said Song Zhongping , a Beijing-based military affairs commentator. "Their obligation is to perform for the soldiers in the barracks. It's unacceptable that they appear in commercial performances as servicemen clad in military uniform. It's time to put a halt to all this."

In recent years, a number of famous young singers have joined the ranks of entertainment soldiers and their high-profile commercial performances, extravagant lifestyle and quick career advancement have drawn criticism among both inside the PLA and out.

Ji Minjia , 31, who finished fifth in the "Super Girl" singing contest in 2005 and joined the song and dance troupe for the PLA Air Force in 2008, was soon named a civil lieutenant, while the army equivalent normally takes 10 years to attain.

One of the critics was Major General Luo Yuan , who at the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in March 2012 proposed separating the entertainment troupes from the military. "A soldier needs to go through many hardships and training before becoming a platoon leader. But some entertainment soldiers have become officers equivalent to the rank of captain and even senior colonel on the day of their recruitment. This is extremely unfair," he was quoted as saying.

But there have also been reservations about the proposed reforms, especially from other non-combat units in the military. Huang Guorong from the PLA Publishing House said the army still needed the entertainment troupes. "The issue here is not to scrap the entertainment troupes but to run them well. Only a minority of entertainment soldiers have problems but the overall image of our art troupes is still good."

However, Zhan Jiang , a professor of journalism at Beijing Foreign Studies University who spent nine years in the navy in 1980s, believes the troupes will eventually be disbanded. "The mainstream opinion is [Beijing wants] to tighten up control of the entertainment troupes but eventually they will be abolished. That's for sure," he said.

Song Zhongping offered another solution. "Instead of keeping entertainment troupes of its own, the army can always go to hire professional performers outside the army to perform for them," he said.