Propaganda, Not Policy: Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part One)

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Latest Jamestown China Brief piece, with links to sources:

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Propaganda, Not Policy: Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part One)

 By Andrew Chubb

The regular appearance in the Chinese media of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) figures calling for aggressive foreign policy causes controversy and confusion among foreign observers. The most sensational remarks usually are made by academics at PLA institutions. Foreign media routinely pick up sensational quotes from these military officers—such as Major General Luo Yuan’s repeated suggestion for declaring the Diaoyu Islands a Chinese military target range or Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong’s recent call for a blockade of Philippine outposts in the Spratly Islands (Beijing TV/Huanqiu Wang, May 27)—and attribute them to senior military leaders, as their ranks seem to suggest (New York Times, August 20, 2012; TIME, Februrary 20; Tea Leaf Nation, February 25; South China Morning Post, March 6; Reuters, March 17). Operational commanders, however, seldom comment in public on policy issues. Prominent foreign policy analyst Wang Jisi has publicly complained about “reckless statements, made with no official authorization” which had “created a great deal of confusion” (Asian Wall Street Journal, July 1, 2012). In April, recently-retired deputy military region commander Wang Hongguang wrote military pundits had “misled the audience” and caused “interference with our high-level policy decision-making and deployments” (Global Times, April 20). This two-part series assesses who these outspoken PLA officers represent and the implications of their hawkish statements through an evaluation of their backgrounds, affiliations and statements on their work.

Debate about belligerent public remarks from military personnel often surrounds the extent to which they might represent the voice of hawkish PLA constituencies, pressuring the leadership to adopt more aggressive policies. Some analysts tend to dismiss such bluster as largely irrelevant on the basis that military media pundits have no operational military authority, despite their high rank. Others, however, emphasize how continued outspokenness by military figures presupposes high-level party or military support, and that they thus give voice to behind-the-scenes political struggles. A third view proposes that the hawks are the voice of the PLA as an institution, pushing the military’s policy preferences [1]. Analysis of scattered biographical information on the most prominent hawkish PLA media commentators, plus comments regarding their own work, suggests each perspective is partially right. None is a general in a conventional military sense, yet they are far from irrelevant. Their backgrounds, affiliations and positions, however, indicate their role probably has more to do with the regime’s domestic and international propaganda work objectives than political debates.

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Luo Yuan

The most famous PLA “hawk” is retired Major-General Luo Yuan. His biography suggests he has operated, and continues to do so, in the areas of Taiwan affairs, intelligence and military propaganda. Born in 1950 in Cangxi County, Sichuan Province to “founding general” and intelligence czar Luo Qingchang, Luo Yuan joined the PLA in 1968 (Southern People Weekly, March 26). He has often stated that he fought on the front lines in Laos against the United States in the early 1970s, and his official biography states that he was a squadron (ban) and platoon (pai) leader (Renmin Wang, February 20, 2012). In 1978 he returned to Beijing to begin his academic career, several months before China went to war with Vietnam. The same year, Luo entered the 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 2006.

Luo has a strong background in “united front” activities, especially regarding Taiwan. Until March this year, Luo Yuan was a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the PRC’s paramount advisory body and a “people’s patriotic united front organization”, where he tabled high-profile proposals for a unified coastguard and a law on soldiers’ benefits and social status (Jiefangjun Bao, March 14, 2012; Jiefangjun Bao, March 10, 2010). He was a member of the CPPCC Committee for Liaison with Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and Overseas Chinese, for which his principal work was “to contribute to cross-straits exchange, the strengthening of military trust, and the peaceful reunification of the motherland”, according to a 2011 article in the official PLA newspaper that quoted him at length on the topic (Jiefangjun Bao, March 4, 2011). His current position is the Executive Vice-President and Secretary-General of the China Strategy Culture Promotion Association (CSCPA), a self-proclaimed non-governmental think tank formed in 2011 as a platform for friendly exchange on “international issues, Taiwan issues and culture issues” (CSCPA website). Its President Zheng Wantong is a former United Front Work Department Deputy Director and CPPCC Vice-Chairman (Xinhua Reference, January 24, 2002).

Military intelligence is another likely area of Luo Yuan’s expertise, based on official accounts of his career. He has visited more than 20 countries, was an assistant military attaché in Denmark between 1992 and 1993, a role consistent with intelligence gathering, and he was a visiting scholar at George Washington University from 1999 to 2000 (Renmin Wang, February 20, 2012). PLA publications frequently refer to Luo as “former Deputy Director of the AMS World Military Research Department” ahead of his PLA CPPCC delegate title, suggesting research on foreign militaries was the subject of his most important position (for example, Jiefangjun Bao, November 1, 2012; Jiefangjun Bao, March 3, 2012; Jiefangjun Bao, March 4, 2011). Similarly, a notable activity of the CSCPA, Luo’s current institution, is the publication of annual assessments of US and Japanese military power. The published reports carry the specification “public version” (minjian ban), implying the existence of internal-circulation versions. With both internal and external dimensions, the CSCPA reports appear to straddle the intersection of military intelligence and public diplomacy aimed at both domestic and overseas audiences. This combination mirrors Luo Yuan’s career more generally.

Luo Yuan’s consistent presence in the mass media in recent years suggests, at a minimum, an excellent relationship with propaganda authorities. One explanation for that could be his older brother, retired Rear Admiral Luo Ting, who had a long career in the Chinese Navy’s military political system. The evidence, however, points to Luo Yuan being part of, rather than a user of, the system, despite his apparently outspoken views. On September 12 last year, for example, the very day after the Japanese government made its Diaoyu Islands transaction, as the mainland propaganda machine cranked into overdrive Luo was given the plum task of penning a commentary for the official PLA newspaper. The article’s key remark, that China “will take all necessary measures to protect sovereignty” was quoted and requoted across state-run print, broadcast and online media for several days afterwards, demonstrating that support for the article extended pervaded the civilian propaganda system too (Jiefangjun Bao, September 12, 2012; CCTV, September 15, 2012; China News Service, September 13, 2012; China Radio International, September 12, 2012).

Far from engaging in contention over policy, Luo has stated that the “rational hawk” role that he and others play must be “designed properly at the highest level” (Huanqiu Wang, May 4). Indeed, Luo has stated that he adheres strictly to rules governing PLA staff.[2] In 2010, for example, when revised PLA internal work rules banned PLA staff from engaging in internet discourse, Luo Yuan immediately discontinued his highly popular blogs (Southern Weekend, April 9, 2012). He longed to open an account on Weibo, the new “public opinion battlefront,” as he termed it, but only did so in February this year, when the rules were relaxed for certain military scholars “in frequent contact with media [or] participating in foreign-related activities”.  The premise for this permission, Luo emphasized, was strict adherence to rules and discipline. Luo described the decision as “an embodiment of the reform and progress of the Chinese military’s external propaganda work” (Renmin Wang, February 25). According to Phoenix Weekly military affairs journalist Zhong Jian, Luo Yuan is in fact an “External Propaganda Expert” authorized by the PLA General Political Department—an assertion supported by his citation on the topic in PLA and party media (Zhong Jian’s blog, March 13; Renmin Wang, February 25; Jiefangjun Bao, November 1, 2012).

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Dai Xu

PLA Air Force Senior Colonel Dai Xu’s career seems to have been almost purely in the realm of military political work. A short biography on one of his defunct blogs states that he “undertakes both physical sciences work and political work.”  (Dai Xu’s blog). Even more provocative in recent years than Luo Yuan, especially in his frequent use of violent language his written output is enormous, with eight published books, innumerable newspaper and magazine pieces, television appearances almost daily, several frequently-updated blogs, and dozens of weibo (microblogs) every day. The son of Henan farmer-soldier family, he entered the PLAAF Political Academy in Shanghai in 1988, aged 24 and, according to a recent Southern Weekend profile, “completed his transition from military work to political work when the Berlin Wall fell” (Southern Weekend, April 18). In 1995 he was working for the State Council Office of Ex-Servicemen and Retired Officers’ Settlement (Jun An Ban) – an apparent crossover with Luo Yuan’s work on soldiers’ benefits.

Dai published his first book, Air War in the Twentieth Century in 2003. By 2005, he was a staff reporter with a PLAAF magazine called Air Force Military Science, at which point he increased his profile with a long and candid discussion on the Iraq War with General Liu Yazhou (China Defense Blog, August 14, 2010). General Liu became Political Commissar at the PLA’s National Defense University in December 2009, and Dai followed as a professor in late 2011. Dai Xu had been relatively quiet in leadup to his NDU appointment, to the point where some observers speculated he may have “lain down his armour and returned to the fields” (Zhu Pengpeng, 2010, p.435).[3] But in one of his first public statements as an NDU professor, at a Huanqiu panel discussion, a seemingly livid Dai Xu called for the “extermination” of the troublemakers in the South China Sea, criticized the policy status quo, and relentlessly attacked international relations scholars on the panel (Tudou, 2011).

Despite his apparent sincerity, however, Dai Xu has also indicated that he is not necessarily seeking to directly influence policy, but is rather in the business of information gathering and propaganda. In 2009, in his introductory remarks preceding a lecture at his alma mater, the PLAAF Political Academy in Shanghai (now part of the PLA Nanjing Political Academy), Dai explained:

“In all these years in so many different places, being involved in many secret work units, writing a lot of internal reports, providing a lot of internal reference material to the highest leaders, on one hand doing internal work, on the other doing external work, I have always firmly grasped the two: there is nothing off-limits in thinking, but propaganda is subject to discipline. This is the most precious thing I learned at PLAAF Political Academy. And as a result, even though I have done a few things, it has never caused any trouble.” (Dai Xu, November 20, 2009).[4]

Dai did not specify whether the lengthy talk he was about to give, entitled “2030: America dismembers China”, was internal or external work – thought or propaganda. He did, however, say his role is as a provocateur rather than a teacher: “I believe my role is to be the spark plug for people’s thought engines.” The audience on the day apparently included Nanjing Political Academy leaders and teachers, but the main content was almost identical to a public lecture he was giving around the country at that time, expounding the thesis of his book, C-Shaped Encirclement. After all, the book’s biographical notes and interviews at the time called Dai a “PLA external propaganda expert” (Huanqiu Wang, November 12, 2009; Bookuu.com).

Dai’s “internal report” was uploaded to the internet, where it created a firestorm of attention among military fans as a purported rare glimpse inside the PLA’s secretive political training institutions. Given that the unabridged video remains available on numerous mainstream PRC-based video websites four years later, the “leak” appears to have been either intentional or at least convenient, given the regime’s determination to maintain secrecy in internal military matters. The logical conclusion is that, like all Dai Xu’s public statements, as propaganda masquerading as PLA thought.

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Zhang Zhaozhong

Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong is best known among domestic Chinese audiences for his erratic analyses of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi’s chances of overcoming their opponents in 2003 and 2011 (Global Voices Online, August 30, 2011). Other often-cited quotes include “I can send several dozen small fishing boats loaded with explosives” to destroy the U.S. Zumwalt stealth destroyers and “[North Korea has] two million elite special forces . . . will the U.S. and South Korean air forces be able to attack them one by one?” (CCTV, May 1, 2012; Zhang Zhaozhong’s blog, November 13, 2012).[5] Yet, despite the succession of ridiculous statements, he has remained a military affairs commentator on state television, including CCTV since 1992.

Born into a peasant family in Hebei Province in 1952, Admiral Zhang joined the PLA in 1970 and worked briefly as an engineer in the navy’s guided missile division, where his “red and expert” performance prompted his supervisors to send him to Peking University in 1974. After graduating in 1978 with a degree in Arabic language, he spent time in Iraq as a translator before entering the Navy Equipment Demonstration Center (Haijun Zhuangbei Lunzheng Zhongxin). He won several academic prizes on his way to his NDU professorship, which was awarded in 1998 (Huaxia Jiyi, July 2000).

Admiral Zhang’s blog on the Global Times’ website lists him as Deputy Director of the NDU Logistics and Technical Equipment Research Department and “a leader on the subject of military equipment.” His blog on the CCTV website listed him as an expert in military logistics and technology. Perhaps reflecting this expertise, he sometimes demonstrates surprising nuance in his television appearances, such as when he discussed the U.S. Department of Defense report on China in 2011, pointing out that it was not particularly Sino-phobic and that the touted “encirclement” of China was a Cold War viewpoint (Zhaozhong Talks Military Affairs, April 4, 2011).

What might explain his wild shifts between hawkish and dovish positions, and between outrageous and sensible analysis? Zhang may have provided one hint when he explained that he is “a military man trained by the party, and a person who will always obey the leaders of the CMC.” He also said “talking differently from the party center is impossible” per the CCP Constitution’s demand for individual subservience to the organization, superiors and the central leadership. When pressed by a reporter about his inaccurate statements on Iraq and Libya, he replied that he maintains complete consistency with the Foreign Ministry and the central leadership. Zhang explained that being a CCTV commentator required “first of all, attention to politics, discipline, and the overall situation,” because CCTV is “the party’s propaganda and public opinion front line.” The latter comment was cut from China Youth Online’s published version of the interview (China Youth Online, August 28, 2012; NetEase, August 28, 2012). Perhaps Zhang’s wayward comments, rather than resulting from his own catastrophic misjudgement, resulted from the prerogatives of his superiors in the propaganda system.

Zhang is not referred to online as an “external propaganda expert,” though this does not necessarily mean he lacks support. It is safe to assume that if either the GPD or the CCP Central Propaganda Department were unhappy with his media appearances across more than two decades, they would not have continued in centrally-controlled media like CCTV and the Global Times.

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Conclusion

In their public statements the likes of Zhang Zhaozhong, Dai Xu and Luo Yuan may or may not be putting forth their own views, but each has affirmed that they speak in accordance with centralized leadership imperatives. Their bellicose comments appear to be made with more or less explicit authorization, as shown by their sustained presence in centrally controlled media like CCTV and the Global Times. Each insists they abide by strict military discipline. Most if not all are “external propaganda experts” appointed by central authorities. None are, or ever have been, a “general” in the sense of being situated near the top of a chain of command of soldiers and officers. Their backgrounds are in academia, intelligence and, most importantly, propaganda.

Hawkish remarks by PLA media figures, therefore, should be seen as propaganda rather than statements of intent or clues to foreign policy debates. They do not necessarily imply divisions within the regime—either between the military and the civilian leadership, or between competing factions. In fact, Luo Yuan has stated the entire appearance of hawks and doves in China’s public discourse should be a carefully coordinated opera in which “some sing the red mask [good cop], others sing the white mask [bad cop]” (Global Times Net, May 4). If the hawks do represent a schism, it is more likely between the imperatives of the CCP-PLA propaganda apparatus and other constituencies, such as military professionals like Lieutenant General Wang Hongguang, international relations intelligentsia and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“China’s Responses to the Pentagon Report ‘Baseless, Counterproductive’,” China Brief, May 9). As Part Two will detail, media commentary by pundits with military rank belong to the realm of political warfare, in which the China’s military-political propaganda apparatus attempts to instil confidence in the military’s fighting spirit among the domestic audience and augment the PLA’s capabilities by influencing perceptions abroad.

Table 1: Supplemental Biographic Sketches of “PLA Hawks”
Name Affiliations Background & Expertise Media
Major General (Retired) Peng Guangqian – AMS Strategy Research Department Fellow (formerly Director of the Department Academic Committee)- Deputy Secretary General, China Policy Science Research Association National Security Policy Committee

– Deputy Secretary General, China Strategic Culture Forum

– Member, Chinese Air Force Military Theory Consultant Committee

– CCP Central External Propaganda Office Experts’ Group member (CASS, August 26, 2010)

– Held unspecified posts in Jinan, Guangzhou and Wuhan military regions between 1968 and 1986- Visiting Scholar, Atlantic Council of the United States in 1990s

– Expert on ballistic missiles (Allthingsnuclear.org, August 27, 2012)

– Edits journal Strategic Sciences

– Special Commentator, CCTV and Phoenix TV- Has been speaking to foreign media since at least 2003, when he declared “six prices” China would be willing to pay to prevent Taiwan independence, including foregoing the 2008 Olympics. (China Daily, December 3, 2003)

– Often quoted in mainstream media, especially Global Times

Senior Colonel Han Xudong – Professor, National Defense University Strategic Teaching and Research Department (Zhanlue Jiaoyan Bu)- Councilor, China South Asia Studies Association

– All-Army External Propaganda Expert (81.cn, June 14, 2012)

– Studied at Armored Force Engineering Institute (Zhuangjiabing Gongcheng Xueyuan) and the Academy of Armored Force Command (Zhuangjiabing Zhihui Xueyuan)- Major research areas are listed as foreign military issues, specifically U.S., Russian and Indian military strategy, Chinese national security culture and non-traditional security – Has appeared on CCTV and Phoenix- Wrote numerous ‘World Military Watch’ columns forJiefangjun Bao

– Columnist, China News Weekly

– Shanghai Radio and Voice of the [Taiwan] Strait military affairs commentator

Rear Admiral (Retired) Yin Zhuo – Director, PLA Navy Informatization Expert Committee- Member, All-Army Informatization Expert Committee

– CPPCC member since 2008, science and technology area

– “Executive External Propaganda Expert” approval of the CPD and GPD Propaganda Dept, title issued by GPD Director Li Jinai (Zhongguo Kexue Bao, May 13)

– The son of revolutionary hero Major General Yin Mingliang, who held numerous PLA political commissar positions after 1949- Studied in France, returned to China in 1968

– Provincial party magazine article stated Admiral Yin has “participated in evaluation work for important national military strategy decision-making” (Lao You, No. 1, 2013).

– Started appearing on CCTV in 1999- Regular guest and host, CCTV military affairs program Junqing Lianliankan from 2004 to 2011

– Special Commentator, CCTV

– Appears as a guest in internet chats for Huanqiu Wang [Global Times Net] and Renmin Wang [People’s Daily Online]


  1. Andrew Scobell, “Is There a Civil-Military Gap in China’s Peaceful Rise?,” Parameters, Summer 2009, pp. 4–22; Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007; ‘Hawks vs. Doves’, China Brief, August 19, 2010.
  2. Rear Admiral Zhang Zhaozhong stated that accepting an interview from foreign media would require the approval of the State Council Information Office (the central government’s propaganda organ), the GPD Propaganda Department’s External Propaganda Bureau and the NDU Propaganda Department. He added that he needs special permission to speak on Chinese provincial television with the exception of Beijing TV (Tencent Comment, November 2011)
  3. Zhu Pengpeng, Mi yiyang de rensheng [A Life Like a Riddle], Hong Kong: Tianma Company, 2012, p.435.
  4. Dai Xu’s lecture is available online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfJ5dUIysKg
  5. There are a great many purported Zhang Zhaozhong quotes that may have been made up; those that I have quoted here have either appeared in transcript form on official sites, or been translated directly from online video or television.

8 Comments on “Propaganda, Not Policy: Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part One)”

  1. […] Propaganda, Not Policy: Explaining the PLA’s “Hawkish Faction” (Part One) → […]

  2. […] PLA’s external­­ (duiwai) propaganda work system, which Part One showed most of the “hawks” belong to, has been greatly strengthened in recent years in line […]

  3. […] difference being, as he said in his lecture to the PLAAF Political Academy in Shanghai, “in thought, anything goes, but […]

  4. […] strategist, or is it more likely to be expertly delivered propaganda designed to look like “leak“, in order to influence what Chinese and foreign audiences believe about how the PLA sees the […]

  5. […] briefly recap, my view is that, based on analysis of the backgrounds and affiliations of the main “hawks”, the belligerent military voices in the Chinese […]

  6. […] as well as the ongoing ideological acceptability of the glorification of anti-Japan violence, and war-talk in centrally-controlled media, the CCP would clearly prefer that such people’s imaginings of […]

  7. […] a whole? (I encourage those interesting in following this debate in full to read Mr. Chubb’s original essays for the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief, a more recent review essay by Yawei Liu […]

  8. […] force on PRC foreign policy. It is different, too, from the picture painted by “hawkish” PLA media pundits and state-run media like the Global Times (环球时报), which often claimto speak for Chinese […]


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