Luo Yuan: a profile

Luo Yuan at the CPPCC meeting in Beijing, March 2012

Translating the following profile on Luo Yuan led to an extremely stimulating discussion with a Chinese friend last night on the topic of this so-called “Major-General”. My friend sees the Luo Yuan media phenomenon as serving an important purpose for the central government: Luo basically acts as a layer of interference between the decision-makers and outside observers.

Among the various possibilities raised in the previous article on Luo Yuan, then, this explanation implies that his prominence in the media is very much a result of consensus at the top of both the military and the party that it is beneficial to have a hardline attack dog. The logic is strong: official-ish voices, those of like Luo and other hawkish paramilitary figures such as Major-General Zhang Zhaozhong of National Defense University, add a layer of unpredictability to Chinese foreign policy, a la North Korea’s antics.

My friend dismisses the idea that Luo Yuan could represent any kind of policy faction or alliance within the party or military; Luo has no influence of his own, he argues, and no genuine policy player would agree with him. The implication of this is that no-one in a position of power in China would actually want to act aggressively on the South China Sea issue. The players in the decision-making process, whoever they are, including military leaders, are much too rational to entertain such ideas.

The bigger picture that starts to take shape is one in which the China Threat Theory is actually something that the Chinese government wants, and perhaps even needs, in order to hide its soft underbelly.

Although the party-state’s approach to the South China Sea disputes is often publicly criticised in China as weak-kneed, my friend places this approach among the government’s continuous, long-term policies that are not subject to internal competition or debate. We can certainly discern a pattern of opportunism in China’s actual actions in the South China Sea, from the taking of the Paracels from South Vietnamese remnants in 1974, to the 1988 battle with Vietnam over the Union Atolls in the Spratlys as Vietnam’s backer the Soviet Union began to crumble, to the occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995 in the wake of the US’s departure from the Philippines.

However, the question might be asked: if China is so rational on the South China Sea issue, why did it alienate its neighbours and draw the US in by stepping up its presence in 2009-2011? Well, Michael Swaine & M. Taylor Fravel have shown, convincingly in my view, that China’s alleged assertiveness, or aggressiveness (or even “aggressive assertiveness“!) during that period was largely explainable as a series of responses to the actions of rival claimant states, mainly Vietnam and the Philippines.

That still leaves the question of Luo Yuan as an opinion leader in Chinese society. My friend’s reading of the situation suggests that the CCP is so confident of its control of domestic nationalist opinion that it doesn’t feel like it’s playing with fire at all when it allows mass outpourings of support for Luo and criticism of the policy status quo online. This confidence was especially apparent in July last year when China agreed to the Guidelines for the Implementation of the South China Sea DOC, inevitably causing nationalist outrage online.

Regarding the popular online support for Luo’s views, my friend puts this down to simple venting. Indeed, the article translated below suggests that the Chinese people just want to see someone in the military express hardline views, and want to believe that someone in power agrees with them. Nevertheless, he sees the allowing or facilitating of Luo Yuan’s media profile as primarily an externally-directed tactic.

So perhaps the CCP trusts that the public, on the whole, really doesn’t agree with Luo’s standpoints. I will be testing this idea through some offline opinion polling later this year – a likely finding of little support for stronger action in the South China Sea among everyday people, would support this conclusion. (This would be exactly the opposite of prominent US scholar Susan Shirk’s claim that the leadership feels threatened by a madly nationalistic public.) After all, a tiny fraction of the population can make a lot of noise online, as many of the South Sea conversations documented here illustrate.

So in sum, Luo Yuan’s media presence, and the provocative media coverage of the Scarborough Shoal standoff that i mused about here last week, could all be part of the same strategy of disinformation for the outside world: let guys like Luo Yuan rant, let the Chinese media make him seem credible, and let the internet users provide “evidence” that the Chinese people are angry about the South Sea and demanding tougher actions, when in fact they are apathetic, and tougher actions are not on the policy agenda.

This is basically a full inversion of the idea of China’s domestic situation dictating China’s foreign policy; instead, the domestic situation is being manipulated and used to China’s advantage at the international negotiating table. It suggests a broader and deeper application of the principles of the “strategic logic of anti-foreign protest” – aka the nationalism card.

The following profile on Luo Yuan, from the April 9 edition of Southern Window, gives the impression of an angry, impotent, and even confused Luo Yuan fighting an unwinnable battle against China’s moral decay. And despite his princeling background, he doesn’t appear to particularly well connected either.

Note: the translation is a summary one in some parts, but mostly it is sentence-by-sentence.

Luo Yuan the “hawk”

Zhang Jianfeng, Southern Weekend

The writer likens the courtyard at the Chinese Academy of Military Science to a “freeze-frame” scene. Luo Yuan sums up the peace and quiet as the site of “a battle without smoke, and a place for pre-practice of war, of concealed dragons and crouching tigers”. Some people deride the Chinese Academy of Military Science as being on the sideilnes, but Luo Yuan quotes a Deng Tuo poem on the ability of writers to cause bloodshed.

Luo entered the academy in 1978 as a common military officer, and has spent most of his career here. When I met with him, the ‘Two Meetings’ had just concluded. During that conference Luo Yuan was the military’s only CPPCC member to attract widespread public attention, and his proposal to strengthen [the PRC’s] South China Sea strategy was seen by the outside world as an aggressive military stance. However, this was only one of Luo’s six proposals.

Luo says that military representatives on the CPPCC should “have ‘Army’ as their surname”. He adds: “In reality, there is no peacetime for military men, only wartime and preparing-for-wartime.”

Although, as a military man, it’s his duty to talk about the military, Luo Yuan’s commentaries have personality and sharpness, and can boost people’s imaginative desires [想象欲] and interest in the Chinese military. Even if people cannot get much clear or useful information from his discourses, in the struggle over public opinion in international military affairs, he without doubt plays the ‘fierce role’ [狠角色] to perfection, being seen as a figurehead of the Chinese military’s famous ‘hawkish faction’. This fits well with a deeply-held hope of the Chinese public: that our military men should show some spirit.

The soldier talks war

After 44 years in the forces, Luo Yuan’s very person carries some classic characteristics of the soldier. His speech is all broad brushstrokes and grand principles. In contrast to the average official’s smooth public style, however, Luo is anything but evasive about certain issues. So he is happy to accept  ‘hawkish faction’, a potentially taboo label. That said, Luo and those familiar with him will usually add a qualification to it: ‘rational’. A few years ago on a visit to the US, he directly addressed those who pointed to him as part of the PLA’s ‘hardline faction’, emphasising that the PLA’s ‘hawks’ were not rude or disrespectful but had elevated manners, not only comparing whose jaw was the strongest, but also whose fists, and whose wisdom.”

Luo Yuan’s work is basically to engage in military competition on an intellectual level. In this hidden contest, if one wants to achieve their goal of winning the battle before it is fought [未战而先胜], then a lack of clear value judgements is utterly out of the question. “As a military man, every day you must want to fight, be able to fight, dare to fight,” Luo says, “and winning is the unshakeable principle of military work.”

In answer to the question of wanting to fight, being able to fight, and daring to fight, Luo Yuan can answer: “You train soldiers for a thousand days to use them in one moment, and not to prepare for war is a violation of the constitution. Of course, now there are some degenerates in the military who spend all day chasing official positions rather than putting their all into winning a fight. This is a huge danger to our military and a great taboo in war.”

But for Luo Yuan, the strategem of ‘subdue the enemy without fighting’ [不战而屈人] from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is meaningless. “Military affairs are hierarchical in structure. Different levels have different standards, and only the very highest level should be thinking about ‘subduing the enemy without fighting’. The lower levels should be thinking about how to subdue the enemy by fighting.”

Since he talks about fighting wars so much, it’s inevitable that some people will see him as blindly militarist. However Luo Yuan, who came from a red soldier household, has been close to the issue of war almost from the moment he was born. His father Luo Qingchang [罗青长] was one of the early CCP’s leaders on the undercover battlefront, and later became head of the Central Investigation Department [中央调查部 – until 1983 the CCP’s most powerful foreign intelligence organ] and a State Council Vice-Secretary, and Luo Yuan was inevitably influenced by growing up in such a household. When he joined the military in 1968, his brother sent him off with four words: “100 temperings creates steel” [百炼成钢]. Indeed Luo Yuan endured much suffering in the army.

“We ‘red descendants’ [红后] have one great characteristic: we are optimistic and we don’t give in. This army was created by our Communist Party, and ever since we were born each one of us has had to know what we live for, why we exist.” Another ‘second-generation red’ from Luo Yuan’s circle has said: “If this state was to encounter danger, we ‘red descendents’ would be the first to charge forward. If it were to be vanquished, we would be the last to fall. Because our fathers taught us to take responsibility for this state. Big brother Luo Yuan is the same as us; this is the essence of the children of the revolutionary soldiers.”

In this time when ‘second-generations’ of all kinds are the butt of jokes, this style of speech appear to be far from unacceptable among the red second generations in the army.

There are others like Luo, such as Liu Shaoqi’s son and PLA Central Logistics Department Political Commissar Liu Yuan, and former Vice-Chairman Dong Biwu’s son, Dong Lianghe, the three of whom were together in the early days of their army service. According to ‘red descendant’ quoted above, these military princelings’ outstanding talent was a given, and the task of keeping the party in command of the gun [党指挥枪] has inevitably fallen on their shoulders.

Says Luo Yuan: “We are the link between generations of revolutionary soldiers, and of course soldiers should have the impulse to achieve. That’s the type of person I am. I’ve been a soldier for 44 years, I don’t fear devils and I don’t believe in demons.

Several years ago when Luo Yuan made a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, an American think tank, he tossed out Chairman Mao’s line, “If we are not attacked, we will not attack; if we are attacked, we will certainly attack.” The result was reportedly positive: some old Chinese emigres with walking sticks loved it, and even an American military officer went out of his way to shake hands and pay his respects. From this, Luo concludes, “If only we can be neither servile nor overbearing, have the courage to speak directly, we will gain the recognition of the international community, or at least they will not dare to look down on us.”

This kind of inner strength comes largely from the battlefield. Luo Yuan joined the army during a time of incessant border clashes. At the start of the 1970s there was the Resist-America-Assist-Laos campaign, and Luo Yuan went to the front lines. The conflicts of that period have been seen by historians in terms of China’s medieval forces contending against modern foreign armies. In one instance, soldiers aired their sheets on anti-aircraft artillery, revealing the position and causing it to be bombed. But rather than flee for the air-raid shelters, the men ran to the position and started shooting at enemy planes. This was a revelation for Luo Yuan: he realised that if you your military equipment is backward you can strive to improve it, and if you lack experience in battle you can accumulate it, but if you lack willpower in battle, then all is lost.

In today’s circumstances Luo Yuan’s bold discussions on war often attract crowds of onlookers. When they hear too much, some people stop taking his words seriously, or think, “Who are you to dupe people into going into battle? If the country was under threat would you do it, Luo Yuan? Have you already sent your kids overseas?”

Luo Yuan often has to face such questions. “I am a person who has been to war, so I have the right to speak. My daughter and son-in-law are in China, and if the country was under threat I would be the first to mobilise them to serve their country.” He doesn’t know if making this explanation is any use, but he can only try.

A determined successor

Besides his war research duties, Luo Yuan spends his days on a self-assigned project: education [of the public] about defense. In 2008 he started a number of blogs in quick succession, which were frequently updated and had ever-greater numbers of readers. But two years ago that all came to a grinding halt. At the end of the day he is in the military, and discipline is imposed from above. It was just unfortunate, Luo Yuan felt, in light of the enthusiastic responses from netizens in the comments sections.

“My idea is that we need to improve our work in this area, given the nature of the internet era [网络时代]. Some combat units should observe strict secrecy and propaganda discipline, but a scientific research and learning unit should have a green light for external propaganda.”

In 2009 he actually appeared on an extremely high-rating Hunan TV entertainment program, where he talked about national defense knowledge. Using this medium’s universal appeal [雅俗共赏的载体], he united teaching with entertainment, and the result was quite good. He has always believed that the masses, especially the young, have a kind of patriotic potential, but appropriate measures are needed to stimulate and guide it.

In Luo Yuan’s view, an important part of national defense education is the transmission of a certain spirit, and Luo has continuously worked to promote the spirit of Zhou Enlai. Before liberation, Luo Qingchang was always at Zhou’s side, and after 1949 he was for a long time the deputy director of the Office of the Premier. When Zhou died, Luo Qingchang participated in the sprinkling of his ashes.

While Luo doesn’t know whether students really listen when he narrates the spirit of Zhou Enlai, there are times when he moves himself to tears in the process. “When I talk [about Zhou], my own spirit gets a kind of purification. Premier Zhou did not do things for show, he spent his whole life pursuing his goals, and when he died he was wearing a ‘Serve the People’ badge. Leaders and cadres should all be like Zhou Enlai. If they did, our corruption phenomenon, and our whole social atmosphere would improve greatly.”

To this end, he has some new ideas: “The party’s high-level cadres should study Zhou Enlai, the mid-level cadres Jiao Yulu, the basic-level cadres Wang Jinxi, and the common citizens Lei Feng.” At one CPPCC meeting he tabled a proposal recommending the Zhou Enlai Spirit be condensed into a set of core values. The way he sees it, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Three Represents and the Scientific Concept of Development are all important, but a spiritual mainstay is missing.

The aforementioned ‘red second generation’ member understands Luo Yuan’s feelings well. “This state is inseparable from us. Our fathers’ generation is no longer around, so the baton has passed to us.” Due to their special background, there are some unusual elements in this group of people’s ideas about the state. “We have no choice, we can either live ordinary irrelevant lives or we can obey the spirit and ideology of our fathers’ generation.”

Their generation live uneasy lives. When he was given the rank of Major-General in 2006, Luo Yuan was most concerned with how to ensure his posture was perfect, worrying that he would make a fool of himself and make his family lose face. To a large extent, the glories of their fathers’ generation have determined their life choices and spiritual world, but times have changed. Their belief that this precious spirit must be passed on to more people can sometimes become a problem. Many outsiders do not understand or identify with their concept of the state and the military.

On one occasion Luo Yuan accepted an invitation to talk to a group of media leaders, and said to them, “We have built up so many exemplary models to follow, but how many can you name?” Nobody could name them all, and this worried Luo Yuan. He concluded that there were too many exemplars [典型], and proposed that the number be reduced to make them more convincing. While each industry could establish their own exemplary models, on a national level only great people like Zhou Enlai would be understood easily enough to make it worthwhile.*

In another instance, in the late 1970s the “Songs of the Long March” [长征组歌], which had been banned during the Cultural Revolution, had just returned to the stage. Seats for the performance were scarce, and Luo Yuan and his wife went to great lengths to get 3 tickets, and brought their daughter along, who had just started school. As Luo rode the waves of emotion from sadness to anger, he noticed his daughter had dozed off. He was extremely angry, and taught her a harsh lesson. After reflecting on the episode, Luo felt that the problem was in education, which had caused young people to lose interest in such glorious traditions.

“Comrade Xiaoping said, our biggest fault is in education. If you want your education to reach the people’s hearts, then you can’t preach, and you can’t elevate some and bring down others.” At that CPPCC meeting the greatest applause was reserved for a call for high-level leaders to set an example in taking up study, rather than just making the masses study Lei Feng. As far as Luo Yuan was concerned, this was of course a suggestion that he took to heart.

A few years ago in a lecture to university students, Luo bluntly rebuked the degeneration of China’s social atmosphere – “money above all, rampant materialism, moral decline” – and criticised the young generations for their overabundance of soft yin and dearth of hard yang [阴柔有余而阳刚不足], calling for a boycott of obscene music and corrupt culture. He deeply believes that “masculinity and strength” [阳刚之气、虎狼之师] are the magic bullets that can put society back on track.

Humans in general might be fickle and indecisive, but Luo’s pursuits are certain. In 2008 he visited his ancestral home in Sichuan. The Red Fourth Army set out from there on the Long March, and the local government has established a museum to commemorate the famous struggle to cross the Jialing River. Luo donated some things his father used in Yan’an to the museum. Throughout his trip he was constantly seeking traces of preceding generations, attending to his parents’ funerary rites, and reverently reciting emotional verses.

“I went there to seek my roots, to know my origins. My father came from the mountains and waters of Sichuan along with 23 others, and the next time he went back, in 1952, he was the only one left. For every one who made it there were countless sacrifices, so we have to remember those martyrs.” Luo Yuan has always believed that society’s mainstream direction should be admiration for the revolutionary heroes. A people that does not revere its heroes cannot produce heroes, and a people lacking regard for military skills cannot stand a chance.

Luo Yuan quotes

– “America faces a “1-2-2″ predicament, that is, a great financial crisis, two large wars (Iraq and Afghanistan) and two big nuclear crises (Iran and North Korea). All of these impinge directly on America’s core strategic interests, and in all of these areas America needs China’s understanding and cooperation. Taiwan is not a core American strategic interest, and the US has no need to save a little to lose a lot [over the issue].”

– “On the military expenditure issue the crucial thing is the intention behind it. Today, every cent of China’s military spending increases are for peaceful purposes, while for other countries every dollar they add is for war. Within the US military spending structure there is an item called additional war allocations. Where are the war allocations in our Chinese military spending structure. All of our allocations are peaceful. China is the only one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council that has not fought a war in the past 30 years.”

– “Military wages should be tied to the CPI and increases in officials’ pay. Military wages are extremely transparent, there are no end-of-year bonuses, no position fees, long service wages or base wages – benefits that are actually income. Military personnel have seen some increase in their wages, but due to price increases and other problems, there still exist some difficulties.”

– “There used to be a misunderstanding, with people thinking China’s diplomatic policy was taoguang yanghui [韬光养晦 – “hide brightness and cherish obscurity”, translated in US official documents as “conceal capabilities and bide our time”]. This phrasing is inaccurate because taoguang yanghui was put forward by Deng Xiaoping at a specific time with regards to a specific issue, and it was in an internal speech. What Deng put forward was four sentences, ‘keep a low profile, be sure to avoid taking the lead, hide brightness and cherish obscurity, accomplish something,’  [善于守拙,绝不当头,韬光养晦,有所作为].† So we can’t just look at one part of this formulation, we should understand it in its entirety. Therefore, taoguang yanghui must be combined with yousuo zuowei [accomplish something] to represent China’s diplomatic strategy. If we separate them, then they are only strategems or tactics.”

* I found this paragraph confusing, so my translation is very rough. If anyone can offer insight please do: 有一次,罗援应邀给一些媒体领导讲课,他问大家,“咱们树立了这么多典型,你们能记住几个?”结果大家说不全。这就触动了罗援,将此归因于典型太杂, 他提出,“典型不在多而在精,在于让人心服口服”,各行各业虽可以树立本部门的标杆人物,但全国全民性的,还是当推周恩来这样的楷模,易于让人领会。

† Luo Yuan omits, “Observe the situation calmly, deal with issues patiently and steadily, secure our position” [“冷静思考,沉着应付,稳住阵脚”] from the beginning of this formulation, which was made in the context of the international backlash against China in the wake of the 1989 Beijing Massacre.


10 Comments on “Luo Yuan: a profile”

  1. Chanse says:

    This is excellent stuff – well done.

  2. […] Luo Yuan: a profile « southseaconversations 讨论南海 not as influential as some may think […]

  3. dylanjones says:

    Thanks for this translation. Confirms the link between Luo and Liu Yuan, an even more influential princeling even more closely tied to XJP. Of course, your mind is clearly already made up.😉

    “There are others like Luo, such as Liu Shaoqi’s son and PLA Central Logistics Department Political Commissar Liu Yuan, and former Vice-Chairman Dong Biwu’s son, Dong Lianghe, the three of whom were together in the early days of their army service. According to ‘red descendant’ quoted above, these military princelings’ outstanding talent was a given, and the task of keeping the party in command of the gun [党指挥枪] has inevitably fallen on their shoulders.”

    • Wouldn’t say my mind is made up about Luo, just sceptical…it would be absolutely great for my thesis project if you’re right!

    • The “keeping the party in command of gun” falling on those three’s shoulders is an interesting one. The implied alternative scenario is not the usual gun-in-command-of-the-party on that westerners like to imagine (eg after the J-20 test flight episode) and which i tend to think China’s political culture is fairly well inured against. It’s the idea of other corrupt interests in command of the gun. Which, from the perspective of both Luo and Liu Yuan, is precisely what has already happened.

  4. […] and, unlike Wang Hongguang, most of them never have been. Major-General Luo Yuan says he fought in Laos in the early 1970s, but he came back to Beijing to begin his academic career in 1978, just before […]

  5. […] TV variety shows aimed at kids. In response, he repeated, almost word-for-word, a line from his Southern Window profile published last year: the young masses love national defense, and have “patriotic […]

  6. […] TV variety shows aimed at kids. In response, he repeated, almost word-for-word, a line from his Southern Windowprofile published last year: the young masses love national defense, and have “patriotic potential” […]

  7. […] Academy of Military Sciences (AMS), with which he has been affiliated for the bulk of his career (Southern Weekend, April 9, 2012). He attained the rank of Major-General in […]


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