The PLA and the SARS Crisis: Implications for Civil-Military Relations

With its extensive health-care resources and ample experience in dealing with civil crises, the military is at the forefront of the Chinese government’s war to contain the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic. But the People’s Liberation Army’s (‘PLA’) penchant for secrecy has also hampered efforts to deal effectively with the spread of the disease. How the PLA responds to this challenge will help to shape the nature of civil-military relations in China during the tenure of Communist Party General Secretary and State President Hu Jintao.


The PLA’s Response So Far The PLA’s track record so far in dealing with the SARS crisis has been mixed. Military hospitals in Beijing initially concealed dozens of SARS patients and military authorities resisted releasing information to the World Health Organization (WHO) until the central leadership finally admitted to the true extent of the crisis in late April. Since then though, the PLA, the paramilitary People’s Armed Police and parttime militia units have mobilized large numbers of medical personnel and troops to deal with the epidemic in Beijing and other hard-hit areas. Measures that have so far been taken include:


  • The dispatch of more than 1200 medical specialists specializing in respiratory disease, contagious disease and epidemic control to man a specially constructed hospital tohandle all SARS cases in Beijing. More medical staff will be sent to rural areas to beef up limited medical facilities.1
  • Use of anti-chemical units to decontaminate SARS-affected areas and conduct screening programmes.
  •  The mobilization of more than a million militia troops around the country, especially in heavily hit areas such as Tianjin, Hebei, Shanxi and  Inner Mongolia, to carry out screening, disinfection and security patrols.2
  • Medical research into the SARS virus and development of protection suits and other anti-contamination equipment.


This is one of the largest mobilizations of the military establishment in recent years, although most of the manpower has come from the militia and support apparatus rather than regular frontline units. With  ore than 200 hospitals and some of  the best-equipped medical research and biotechnology facilities spread across the country, the military medical apparatus has substantial capabilities to deal with such a crisis. If the virus were to spread into the country’s rural hinterland though, the PLA would likely have to deploy significantly more resources. With military personnel on the frontline in the fight against SARS, they have suffered a much higher level of infection than the general population. WHO officials in mid-May said that around 8 per cent of all SARS cases involved military personnel, which would mean between 150 to 160 cases.3 While the PLA has been reluctant to disclose any specific details about the spread of SARS in the ranks, the bulk of those infected are likely to be medical staff.


The Role of Jiang Zemin and the Military Leadership

Publicly, the civilian leadership under Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao have taken charge of the handling of the government’s response to the epidemic. But the military top brass, including its commander-in-chief and former Party Chief Jiang Zemin, are playing an active and influential role behind the scenes in the management of the crisis. Jiang is reported to have ‘asked endlessly’ about the SARS situation and the Central Military Commission (CMC), the country’s top politico-military decision-making body, has met regularly to oversee the military response.4 Undoubtedly mindful that he gave up all his civilian posts at the 16th Party Congress last November and the National People’s Congress in March, Jiang has been careful to stay out of the limelight and allow the civilian leadership to be seen to be taking the lead in handling the crisis. But Jiang has also made it clear that he is responsible for overseeing the military response and that the top brass listens to him rather than Hu or Wen. However, if the civilian leadership were to badly mishandle the crisis and the epidemic were to spread to other parts of the country, Jiang and the military leadership would likely assume a more prominent role as the military’s on-the ground involvement would also expand significantly in such a worse case scenario.


The Costs and Benefits of the SARS Epidemic on the PLA


The financial and human costs of the SARS epidemic for China and the PLA is likely to be considerable, but the military establishment may suffer additional political and readiness problems, at least in the short term:


  • Impact on military readiness: The epidemic could have at least a major short-term impact on the PLA’s military readiness, especially of units located in hard-hit areas. In a hint of the top brass’s concern, Gen. Guo Boxiong, CMC Vice-Chairman, has ordered units to ensure that their training and war preparedness can carry on as normal although at the same time taking measures to prevent SARS infection.5
  • Erosion of its autonomy: Following an initial unwillingness to disclose its role in the SARS crisis, the PLA has now had to become more transparent and provide information about the spread of SARS among its troops to civil authorities and the WHO, although WHO officials claim that the data offered is insufficiently detailed. In response to this secrecy, there have been calls for a strengthening of civilian oversight over the military. But PLA chiefs are unlikely to allow any dilution of their autonomy and will continue to remain largely above civilian scrutiny. No military officers appear to have been punished for their role in the initial cover-up, although the Health Minister and the Mayor of Beijing were both sacked.


This crisis also represents an important opportunity though for the military leadership to boost its public image and seek extra resources to bolster its medical capabilities. Ways in which the PLA can capitalize include:


  • Improving its public image: The PLA stands to win substantial public support for its frontline role in fighting the epidemic and it will not be shy to mount a major propaganda campaign that will include picking model heroes from the ranks. The military has enjoyed a boost to its image whenever it has been engaged in handling major disaster relief operations, such as flooding and earthquakes.


  • Lobby for increased funding: The military top brass can use the SARS crisis to argue for increased funding, especially to beef up its military medical capabilities and local militia operations. As SARS is likely to be a long-term health problem, the military may be required to devote considerable resources for the foreseeable future.


  • Promote greater transparency: One of the lessons that the PLA may have learnt  from its failed efforts to conceal its early role in treating SARS patients is the importance of improved transparency, although only on a limited scale. In early May, military authorities took the unprecedented step of admitting to the loss of seventy crew-members in a submarine accident, although there was little detailed information about the circumstances behind the disaster. While it is premature to conclude that these tentative steps toward improved disclosure means the lifting of the military’s traditional veil of secrecy, it does indicate that the PLA is not immune to the broader reforms and opening up in the rest of the country.


Overall Implications on Civil-Military Relations

The SARS crisis represents the first major test for civil-military relations under Hu Jintao. Although the crisis is far from over at present, some tentative conclusions can be offered. First, although Hu Jintao has taken the overall lead in the handling of the government’s response to the SARS epidemic, his involvement with the military has been limited and he has been careful not to infringe on Jiang’s authority. This suggests that Hu continues to lack a powerbase within the military, which is unlikely to be addressed as long as Jiang remains as CMC Chairman.


Secondly, the military leadership has been careful to obey and be seen to obey their civilian superiors, even if there have been disagreements on the handling of the crisis, such as the extent of information that military hospitals are required to disclose. As long as the SARS epidemic does not represent a major and direct threat to the country’s national security, the military will take a subordinate role in decision-making. Only on issues that are central to the military’s interests, such as Taiwan or Sino-US relations, will the top brass take a more prominent and influential role. In the worse case circumstances of SARS spreading out of control and leading to widespread social disorder, panic and local protectionism and challenges to central authority, the military may decide to intervene more directly to ensure stability. However, PLA chiefs would be extremely reluctant to do so as they have been striving to keep out of domestic affairs in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 and concentrate on their primary mission of defending the country from external threats and safeguarding territorial integrity.


Thirdly, SARS may lead to an increased role for the PLA domestically as the authorities seek to beef up their capabilities to respond to medical and other major crises in future. The Chinese government is reported to be making preparations to establish an emergency response bureau that would be in charge of dealing with domestic disasters, much like the US Federal Emergency Management Administration.6 The PLA will likely play an important role in such an organization because it has previously been the principal institution used to handle major calamities.


Tai Ming Cheung



1 Xu Jinzhang, ‘Jiang Zemin Approves Army Medics

Setting Up Beijing SARS Hospital’, Xinhua News Agency, 28 April 2003.

2 ‘Chinese Armed Police Units Support Localities’ Fight Against SARS’, Xinhua News Agency, 16 May 2003.

3 ‘Chinese Army Accused of Holding Back SARS data’, Financial Times, 14 May 2003, p14.

4 Cao Zhi, ‘Guo Boxiong Inspects Army’s Atypical Pneumonia Work’, Xinhua News Agency, 12 May 2003.

5 Ibid.

6 Nailene Chou Wiest, ‘New Bureau Will Plug Loopholes  Exposed By the Mainland’s SARS Crisis’, South China Morning Post, 12 May 2003.

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