PLA Soldier from Uniform to Civvie Street

Demobilization of soldiers is a yearly process in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Thus between November and December each year soldiers who have completed two years of service and have not qualified for the Non commissioned officers test return to civilian life. All soldiers are given salary for the following month and are required to return their new uniforms as per a recent directive. This yearly demobilization is different from the general demobilization being undertaken by the PLA from time to time. Thus from a peak of 6.27 million soldiers during the Korean War in 1951, the numbers today have dropped down to just over 2 million with a major portion of the demobilization occurring after 1978.

Of late, the Chinese have shown some concern about welfare of the demobilized soldiers. Thus soldiers moving to harsh climates are being provided with cold weather clothing, while the prosperous provinces of the country as Jinagsu on the East coast are providing each soldier a subsidy of half the per capita income of the locals while poorer provinces as the Ghuizhou in the south west have provided for a mere 13 to 16 dollars which as per Xinhua are frequently in arrears. Those who are not able to provide for themselves are also given relief and subsidies by the local government.

Thus, as is indicated, the aim should be to retain social stability and maintain image and reputation of the army after demobilization. Preference is also given to the PLA demobilized soldier in employment by adopting a policy of putting soldiers first and being considerate to their practical needs. Local units are thus required to coordinate with the civilian departments for this purpose.

Despite all the facilities being provided to the PLA demobilized personnel, he has to return the uniform, which has been recently adopted by the PLA in July this year. This tradition had been prevalent way back in the1950’s. But those days to cater for over 6 million troops, China did require massive resources which the nascent Communist regime could hardly afford. Thus, demobilized soldiers were asked to return the uniform so that the same could be handed over to their successors with a view to carry out the revolutionary spirit. Another rider was the need to emphasize simple living and foster Spartan practices in soldiers.

Yet today with a booming economy, a $ 40 billion plus budget and one-third the size of the 1950’s, reiterating the same order may seem anachronous. The official Chinese order on the other hand indicates that this is to prevent uniforms being recycled through the black market, used as deception and to protect the uniqueness of the military. There may thus be sound military reasons for the uniform not to filter into the market.

The paradox of returning the uniform with the instructions to especially look after soldiers after demobilization is more than telling. Why a demobilized soldier should resort to using, transferring or even selling the uniform in the market should need some consideration? While no information is available on the profile of a demobilized Chinese soldier, those in the poorer provinces no doubt would be suffering from penury and lack of employment. Like many other armies in the World, the PLA too needs to adopt standard discharge practices of providing soldiers with some vocational education and create social symmetry with the civilian counter part to facilitate them to survive the vagaries of life out of uniform.

Given reports of large-scale disparity in living standards in China, this is particularly important for those coming from the Western provinces away from the prosperous coastal areas. This could be one way to facilitate growth in these areas, for disciplined soldiers can provide role models to societies at large. Above all, it is now evident that the PLA too has realized that material needs of the soldier have to be catered for even as he leaves the service and they cannot be expected to survive on mere ideological fervor.

Rahul K Bhonsle
Rahul K. Bhonsle is a Strategic Risk and Knowledge Management Consultant and writer with specific focus on defence and security, especially in South Asia.