The People's Liberation Army is taking aim at its 10,000 entertainment soldiers, with most of the army's 30 troupes slated to close, according to military sources.
The groups of singers, dancers, actors, acrobats and other artists have long been a key part of the army, putting on shows to raise morale as well as define patriotism for the nation.
But amid a state-backed drive against excess, the crossover of the PLA and show business has become a highly visible target.
It is not yet clear how many performers will be laid off, but cuts are expected to be deep and affect most of the entertainment operations distributed throughout the army, including the seven key geographical military commands.
Only the headquarters of the PLA's political department and some key fighting forces would keep their own troupes, a Shanghai-based retired senior colonel told the Sunday Morning Post. Other troupes will be phased out.
"There are some suggestions that some military barracks might need to set up joint venture production houses with the public to keep their troupes, but their performers will not be paid by the army," the veteran said.
Communist Party leaders announced plans to slim down non-combat operations of the PLA in the policy blueprint released after the key third plenum in November.
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 both inside the PLA and out.
"The art troupes [will] become the first group to be downsized simply because they have been a hotbed of corruption," the senior colonel said.
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. To maintain the troupes' performing standards, the PLA allowed them to poach top artists from the public in recent decades. These hires fell under what the army called a "special recruitment scheme".
Many famous performers like President Xi Jinping's wife, Peng Liyuan , folk singer Song Zuying and other divas and tenors joined the PLA through this channel. But the retired senior colonel said some military leaders had abused the system and hired their favourite performers. In other cases, famous artists were brought in by lower-level officers in an attempt to please top leaders who had the power to promote.
"It's a fact that most of the PLA's famous entertainment soldiers, especially those young female performers, were recruited from the public, not from the army's art schools, and all of them were promoted more quickly and received more generous pay packages than other soldiers," he said.
He cited the example of Tang Can, a renowned singer who forged her own style melding folk songs with popular music. She was made a PLA member in 2010, but has not been seen in public since late 2011. There are rumours she is under investigation by anti-graft watchdogs because of her alleged affairs with dozens of generals and former senior officials.
Xu Guangyu , a senior consultant of the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, a government-aligned military think tank, said the special recruitment system might be abolished to appease the public, while some smaller troupes would be downsized.
"I have been sending letters to our General Political Department for many years, suggesting they … downsize troupes from different military commands," he said. "The troupes do not have the right role in our country.
"They have poached too much talent from the public," he said, pointing to the PLA's involvement in singing and sporting contests. Different troupes from various units were known to send their star talent to such competitions, resulting in a list of winners stacked with PLA troops.
Peng and Song have enjoyed official and political privileges equivalent to a "major general". But in the near future, new entertainment soldiers in the People's Liberation Army will not enjoy political privileges or salary equal to a "major general", the retired senior colonel said.
A circular on military management reform that appeared online recently said entertainment soldiers would only be selected from the army's art schools.