Major-General Luo Yuan’s “real and fake” dove-hawk opera

Luo Yuan, which part will you sing?

Luo Yuan, which part will you sing?

As usual, I should be doing other things, but i couldn’t let this pass into the shadows: a chat session between Major-General (Retd) Luo Yuan and netizens from Huanqiu Wang  (Global Times Website) in which Luo says the PRC’s debates between hawkish and dovish factions are “mixture of truth and deceit, real and fake”.

An English-language summary of the exchange was published on Chinascope in May, but that excluded many interesting parts, including, crucially, the ending. The more i read through the original, in fact, the more it seemed that just about everything in the article was pertinent.

Luo Yuan’s hopes for the masses

It starts almost exactly where i left off in this previous piece, discussing the strong market appeal of the PLA’s “hawkish” academic corps. The Huanqiu transcript claims to be a “actual record” of the chat, though the perfect, formal language the netizens allegedly used indicates that they were carefully vetted and edited. With questions prefaced by lines like, “Our country is currently situated in a period of complicated external circumstances,” we might legitimately wonder whether there were any netizens involved in the production of the questions at all.

Huanqiu netizen: China has always practiced peaceful coexistence, but in recent years our country has faced challenges everywhere in upholding territorial sovereignty. A significant number of the Chinese masses appeal for the coming of a “Flying General” from the poem line, “But when the Flying General is looking after the Dragon City / No barbarian horseman may cross the Yin Mountains.“[1] May I please ask, General Luo, how do you view these kinds of appeals?

“Flying General” refers to Li Guang 李广, the early Han Dynasty commander known for striking terror into the hearts of the Xiongnu raiders to the northwest. This raises a basic tension in China’s contemporary nationalist identity, between peaceful coexistence and merciless vengefulness and exclusion. Chairman Mao, of course, explained this away with his famous 1939 dictum, “If others do not assault me, I will not assault them; if others assault me, I will certainly assault them,” (人不犯我我不犯人,人若犯我我必犯人). Perhaps not surprisingly, that phrase became a slogan for destroying all kinds of real and fabricated enemies during Mao’s reign.

So, how does Luo Yuan view the masses’ alleged desire for a messianic “Flying General” figure to fight those fearsome Filipino raiders?

Luo Yuan: This is the citizenry’s hope for the Chinese military, an appeal to a sense of heroism. Even more so, it’s a nostalgia for our party and army’s period of suffering and glory, and at the same time, it’s expressing the citizens’ strong sense of anxiety 忧患意识. “For the rise and fall of the emperor’s domain, even the commoners have responsibility.” With the military and the people of one heart, their power can cut through metal. No barbarian horsemen may cross the Yin Mountains — that is we soldiers’ unshakeable responsibility. . . The people’s calls are both pressure and motivation for us soldiers, we use it to spur ourselves on. The “Flying Generals” and “Excellent Generals” fighting to protect the homeland do not turn their back on the people’s hopes.

Luo Yuan often states that engendering a “sense of anxiety” among the people is one of his aims, so he obviously sees the idea of the masses longing for a “Flying General” as a good thing. His observation that “with the military and the people of one heart, their power can cut through metal” (军民同心,力可断金) illustrates why: his belief (or at least his public statements of belief, for as we shall see below, the two are not coterminous) that a militaristic public is an important source of real military power. As Luo wrote earlier this year, “there is something on this earth that is more awesome (厉害) than aircraft carriers, and that is popular will”. Popular will 民意, he said, “can carry boats, and it can also overturn them, and ‘boats’ includes aircraft carriers”. Dai Xu takes a similar position, arguing that militaristic mass nationalism is “the only thing [the U.S.] cannot defeat”.

This seemingly old-school Maoist view is surely not Luo Yuan and Dai Xu’s alone. The sprawling CCP-PLA propaganda/thought work apparatus could conceivably have an institutional vested interest in such ideas, since they elevate the importance of their task of mass ideological work, and a near-unlimited rationale for resource allocations.

Next, Luo chose to answer a question about his appearances on glitzy Hunan 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 potential” that just needs to be stimulated and mobilized. Luo makes the point that “simple preaching is no good”, and calls for the embedding of teaching within entertainment, the use of emotional appeals, and unspecified “new methods”. This range of sophisticated propaganda tactics contrasts sharply with Luo’s simplistic strategic policy suggestions.

Maritime territory over strategic opportunity?

Luo was presented with a question about the “strange phenomenon” of some people believing the Diaoyu Islands have no value, and “criticizing some patriotic military leaders who strongly uphold Diaoyu and South China Sea sovereignty”. Luo Yuan responded that not all people who held such odd viewpoints were the same, with some simply having “problems of understanding 认识的问题” and a tiny minority having “problems of standpoint 立场的问题”. Luo’s prescription, again, invoked a great Maoist tradition: the first kind should be debated, while the second kind should be despised and spurned by the people and “must suffer legal sanctions”.

Interestingly, Luo directly engaged with the issue of protecting “the period of strategic opportunity 战略机遇期”, a fundamental CCP-PLA foreign policy doctrine that has been raised this year by General Liu Yuan to reject calls for military action over Diaoyu. Luo made a relatively subtle but unmistakable case for doing something sooner rather than later: China is getting older, fast, and America is returning to Asia. “What is more, maritime resources will not wait for us, whatever gets looted by others is gone, we should think of future generations, and be responsible for their future development.” In contrast with much of Dai Xu’s ravings, this was a relatively rational argument for PRC maritime aggression, appealing at least to logic, rather than plain emotion and slogans. This increased the likelihood, in my mind at least, that Luo Yuan meant what he said. That he went on to repeatedly defend himself against claims that he “deserted” the army by coming back to Beijing to enter the Academy of Military Sciences before the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War, also suggested sincerity.

Yet he he subsequently contended that “coordinating the domestic and international situations 协调国内国外两个大局” (another CCP-PLA policy catchphrase) and safeguarding regional peace and stability mean making state sovereignty the #1 priority, and only then, on that basis, actively trying to extend the “period of strategic opportunity”. An argument that, given the PRC’s extensive sovereignty claims over territory it currently does not control, has a huge contradiction at the heart of it.

The period of strategic opportunity, articulated authoritatively by Jiang Zemin in 2002, refers to a period during which China should concentrate on developing its domestic economy. Officially, according to the current 12th Five-Year Plan, China remains in such a period. If China were to place upholding its maritime territorial sovereignty claims in the disputed East or South China Seas ahead of maintaining peace for the purpose of economic development, as per Luo’s suggestion, this would at best result in greatly elevated regional tensions, but could easily prompt economic sanctions and disruption of seaborne resource flows — all highly threatening to one of the CCP’s most basic premises for remaining in power, ongoing rapid economic development.

Despite the US and ASEAN countries controlling the Straits of Malacca, Lombok and Sunda, through which around 40% of China’s oil passes (80% of its imports), Luo simply dismissed out of hand the possibility of a US-led naval blockade in the event of conflict over disputed islands. It’s hard to see how this possibility could be of so little concern to a genuine “PLA strategist”; but it is much easier to imagine how it serves Luo’s stated “defense education” agenda — promoting interest, pride and belief in the PLA’s capabilities. At the same time it risks inflates expectations  — among those who take his message seriously at least — thus casting the decision-making leadership in the questionable light of having capabilities they are unwilling to use.

Political work rather than policy competition?

There were plenty of other highlights such as criticism of corruption in the military, conspiracy theories regarding the attacks he suffered on Weibo and, on the question of how to respond to US cyber warfare attacks, recommending “adoption of the barbarian’s strengths to defeat the barbarian 师夷长技以制夷”.  But the part i found the most fascinating was the final question and answer:

Huanqiu netizen: How can “hawks” and “doves” cooperate effectively to safeguard China’s national interest?

Luo Yuan: The way of the word and the weapon.[2] Design at the highest level must be done properly, with the division of labour following from the overall objectives of the state, with some singing the villain role 唱白脸, others singing the honest minister role 唱红脸…

This suggests that the hawkish statements of PLA figures, or at least those of Luo Yuan himself, are much less a reflection of any determination to influence policy, than of functional responsibilities assigned from above. Indeed, the operatic “singing” roles Luo refers to are actually often translated as “good cop” and “bad cop” — the dualism famous for capturing the political-strategic advantages of being perceived as having a split personality.

redwhite mask

Bill Bishop discussed this logic after Hu Jintao’s apparent lack of knowledge of the first test flight of China’s first stealth fighter in January 2011: “Perhaps [the Chinese regime] think that if the US believes that Hu is weakened and ‘in a power struggle with the ‘hardliners’ then the US will go easy on him to avoid ‘undermining’ him and upsetting a ‘delicate balance’.”

Bill was clear that he was engaging in speculation, and i am doing the same. I am also painfully aware that translating from Chinese gives one considerable room for interpretation. But, to my amazement, Luo explicitly flagged deception as a purpose of China’s hawk/dove discourse, in the very next sentence:

…it can even be a mixture of truth and deceit, real and fake,[3] transparent when transparency is called for, secret when transparency is not called for, all with the core strategic interests of the state as the highest consideration. The hawkish faction must be rational hawks, the dovish faction must be nimble and valiant doves. 甚至可以虚虚实实,真真假假,该透明的时候就透明,不该透明的时候就保密,一切以国家核心战略利益为最高考量。鹰派必须是理性的鹰派,鸽派必须是剽悍的鸽派。

Am i getting this right? As far as the PLA’s most famous “hawk” is concerned, bellicose public statements need not reflect actual policy positions, for their purpose is not to influence policy, but rather to form part of a sideshow in the service of the national strategic interest as determined by “the highest level” of decision-makers?  Meanwhile, if a statement does happen to reflect a genuine-held policy position, that should only appear in public if that accords with the real decision-makers’ national strategic interest calculations? So, essentially, there is no hawks vs doves policy battle?  I’ll take this opportunity to not only welcome, but appeal for alternative explanations.

What Luo Yuan actually says is that he believes this is how the CCP-PLA’s public hawk/dove opera should be sung. And given his position at the centre of the PLA academic media commentary industry, it is quite possible that this by and large describes how it does play out. Luo Yuan may never have been a real general with a chain of command below him, but if there’s one topic he can speak with ranking authority on, it must the PLA pundit industry.

Still, not every PLA commentator involved is necessarily playing by the same rules, all of the time. Senior Colonel Dai Xu, for example, has been even more outspoken than Luo Yuan in recent years. Dai may indeed have been authorized to maintain his steady hum of hawkish statements for the consumption of domestic and international audiences, but his evident passion may take him too far on occasions. Lt-Gen Wang Hongguang may simply have been calling for greater discipline from PLA commentators when he wrote earlier this year that their talk of a Sino-Japanese war for the Diaoyu Islands were affecting “high-level decision-making and deployments“. Alternatively, the PLA’s famed stovepipes may have resulted in Lt-Gen Wang, until March this year Deputy Commander of the Nanjing Military Region, being unaware of important political purposes behind the uniformed warmongering in non-mouthpiece media like the Global Times.

Of course, it’s not news that the CCP and the PLA are on the same team. But at the very least, Luo Yuan’s extraordinary comments call into question the common outside interpretation of the “rising voice of the PLA” over the few years as a sign of the military’s growing determination to undermine dovish policy-makers, or of a hardline military clique seeking a warlike policy stance.

Servicing whatever policies the party leadership decides on, rather than attempting to influence such decisions, as Luo Yuan indicates he does, also fits neatly with the purposes of PLA military political work (both internally and externally directed), something i’ll jump deeper into in an upcoming piece.


[1] Rough on-the-spot translation. I don’t know enough about ancient Chinese or poetry to vouch for it, but that’s the gist, according to this explanation.

[2] 文武之道,一张一弛 — defined here as “the mutual joining of loose and strict”, a reference to the Wen Wang 文王/Wu Wang 武王 father-son ruler combination of the Zhou Dynasty.

[3] 虚虚实实,真真假假 — the first couplet actually invokes a Zhuge Liang double-bluff strategem deployed against Cao Cao in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Zhuge Liang correctly anticipates that a fleeing Cao Cao will interpret the appearance of campfire smoke ahead as a trick, and will therefore continue on the same path). However, the addition of the latter phrase indicates that Luo Yuan is using the term in the more conventional sense of the mixing up of real and fake so as to obscure someone from the truth.

Cao Cao has been fooled.

Cao Cao has been fooled…but he’ll be awake to it afterwards.


4 Comments on “Major-General Luo Yuan’s “real and fake” dove-hawk opera”

  1. […] Major-General Luo Yuan’s “real and fake” dove-hawk opera → […]

  2. KK Wren says:

    I think your speculation is largely correct. there is a coherent policy behind the public hawk and dove play. but i think as far they are concerned their strategy is no different from America’s. To them America’s central stregy is to always have a strategic enemy so that it never stops enhancing its world dominance; the diversity of public voices is merely a show. there is certain truth to that and American sense of crisis has served it well economically and militarily. Chinese nationalism has always been at the heart of all the struggles ever since 1895 (up till then there had been little sense of nationhood/race and deep denial about the extent of China’s fall from grace). National reemergence, after well over 100 years of fighting for survival at the bottom, is something the Party can rely on safely for legitimacy and authority. On the other hand, Chinese nationalism is defensive in nature and has a limited well defined goal, quite different from say the Natzi German one or the Japanese one, which were expansionary without natural limits. All of these need to be understood in order to handle the China problem (from the American perspective) wisely. One thing that is for sure: ultra hawkish stance that seeks to contain China right along its boarders ‘in your face’ style only serves to strengthen the CCP; and since real war and sanction against China is not really an option now or probably ever, it merely gives CCP more time and more legitimacy to build up its technological and military power. So if America wants to creat a real, strong rival in the future, then that s the way to do it. At the moment, China is no where near a rival to America and America has the chance to manage its rise so that it is a friend if and when it is more advanced. In many ways, the ‘complacent’ doves are correct. As any economy advances to a certain level, social and political advance is inevitable. China’s size makes people impatient and insecure and yet it is precisely where patience is needed. China is most likely to follow the steps of Korea/Taiwan/Singapore if left to its own devices. Experience there is most useful. At what level of GDP per capita did democratisaiton start to happen in those countries? China is not there yet. But unfortunately so many American strategists and politicians could not look beyond the superficial label of ‘commies’. So the likelihood of strategic miscalculation is high unfortunately.

  3. […] According to Luo Yuan, public will (民意) is “able to overturn ships”, while Dai Xu has called it the “main force in Chinese society”, and on such matters, the academic figures who make up most of the PLA’s external propaganda/publicity corps are, quite literally, the experts. Both have taken on the task of National Defense Education and raising the public’s “imperilment awareness” 忧患意识 and thus vigilance against ideological permeation. Then there’s the matter of Luo Yuan’s “real and fake” dove-hawk opera… […]

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