The People’s Liberation Army’s powerful and controversial “entertainment corps,” collectively known as “the PLA Culture Work Units,” is finally being dismantled after decades of public outrage and repeated official efforts to rein in its excesses and influence.
This week, the pinnacle of the entertainment corps, the Song and Dance Troupe of the General Political Department of the PLA, was officially disassembled after 63 years in the national limelight. Created during the Korean War, the prestigious Culture Work Unit has exercised power and influence over the PLA far beyond its ostensible role as a morale-boosting, ideology-indoctrinating troupe for the front-line soldiers. The corps has become an unlikely symbol of power, debauchery and corruption, deeply entangled in the deadly intrigues among the country’s Communist Party elites and political leadership.
But the Song and Dance Troupe is only a small part of an enormous military entertainment corps that also includes similar-size song-and-dance troupes at each of the PLA service branches and all the Military Region and provincial commands across the nation. The troupes employ tens of thousands of these specially recruited “Culture Workers,” most of them young, beautiful women with — and often without — artistic talents.
The PLA entertainment corps traces its origin to the propaganda performing units in the Soviet Red Army in the 1920s. Over the decades, its primary function was supposedly to entertain soldiers and front-line units. But, in reality, it has been hugely controversial for decades as it deviated from its original purpose.
Mao Zedong was notorious for exploiting young women in these military entertainment units. The longtime dictator’s third wife, Jiang Qing, was an actress in the 1930s before she “devoted” herself to the married revolutionary leader in 1938.
But while still married to Jiang Qing, Mao became a sex fiend with a particular penchant for young female “Culture Workers” in uniform. A memoir by the former PLA Air Force chief Wu Faxian, published posthumously in Hong Kong, details how two of the Great Helmsman’s favorite mistresses in the PLA Air Force Song and Dance Troupe, Liu Suyuan and Shao Jinhui, became the ultimate authority over the entire PLA Air Force in the late 1960s during Mao’s murderous Cultural Revolution.
Professional PLA officers have long resented the power and influence of these political mistresses in uniform, and have long plotted to kill the program. During every round of PLA downsizing — in the mid-1980s and again in the early 2000s, for example — proposals to curtail or dismantle these military entertainment units have been contemplated, but none succeeded. In fact, due to the unbridled increase in the military budget in the last couple of decades, the troupes have only increased in size and influence.
Some of the female singers and dancers are unusually powerful personalities in China’s public space, fueling speculation of illicit sexual relationships with top leaders. The lead female singer from the PLA Navy’s Song and Dance Troupe is widely suspected of obtaining her preeminence as a result of providing sexual favors to former President Jiang Zemin.
And not all of the speculation against these uniformed Culture Workers has proven unfounded. In June 2006 Vice Admiral Wang Shouye, deputy chief of the PLA Navy, was sentenced to what is now life imprisonment for embezzlement of public funds and moral debauchery. He was accused of having at least five female mistresses. One of them, a military entertainer, turned Wang in to the authorities after a custody dispute over their illegitimate son.
In 2013 the nation was transfixed by the reckless behavior of Li Tianyi, the son of the nation’s most famous male military tenor, Li Shuangjiang. China’s netizens exploded in anger over the elite military entertainers’ lavish lifestyles and excessive privileges when details of the trial were leaked online.
President Xi Jinping has been deeply alarmed by the corruption and excess of these PLA entertainment units. In September 2013 he signed an order banning military entertainers from profiting in commercial performances and prohibited high-ranking military entertainers from calling themselves generals or admirals.
But it appears that Mr. Xi’s efforts did not have the desired impact, and now the president is determined to kick the troupes out of the PLA altogether.
In September last year, when he announced a 300,000-man troop cut, a primary target was the dismantling of the military entertainment corps. This week’s abolition of the powerful and much glorified Song and Dance Troupe of the PLA Political Department is just the beginning of Mr. Xi’s own bloodless military cultural revolution.
• Miles Yu’s column appears Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and @Yu_miles.
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