PLA Political Work in Cyberspace
At a time when Xi Jinping is reasserting the CCP’s power and authority, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has intensified its exploration of new methods for “political work” (政治工作). The concept of political work has a long history within the PLA and has received increased attention since a 2014 meeting at Gutian, held on the 85th anniversary of the 1929 Gutian Conference, which initially established the “basic principle of the Party leading the military.” At the 2014 meeting, Xi Jinping emphasized that political work is the “lifeline” (生命线) of a powerful army, calling for its improvement in an era of information networks. That is, political work is leveraged for purposes of indoctrination, to ensure the good conduct and Party loyalty of PLA officers and enlisted personnel. Since then, there have been repeated calls for innovation in political work, reflecting a concern over its lack of efficacy, confronting such challenges as endemic corruption. Perceiving cyberspace as the latest battleground for ideological struggles, the CCP and PLA seek to ensure that political work plugs into the “wings” of the Internet and introduces new ‘data links’ to strengthen that lifeline. Increasingly, the PLA is exploring and experimenting with new techniques to extend political work from the real world to the virtual in an age of information technology.
What precisely is political work, and how is the PLA attempting to innovate in it? According to the 2009 PLA Political Work Regulations (中国人民解放军政治工作条例), it involves the “ideological work and organizational work of the CCP in the military,” constituting “the fundamental guarantee of the Party’s absolute leadership over the Army and the Army’s performance of its functions.” Within this framework, the focus on ideological and political education is undertaken in accordance with the Party’s line, intended to ensure patriotism, collectivism, and “revolutionary heroism.” Also as of 2009, the PLA’s Ideological and Political Education Outline (解放军思想政治教育大纲) included a call for the use of the PLA’s political work network and units’ local area networks for online learning exchanges, interactive activities, guest interviews, etc. in order to “strengthen and advance the reach and timeliness of ideological influences.” Confronted with an ‘Internet generation’ of Chinese millennials who have have grown up online, the PLA is attempting, often with a degree of awkwardness, to leverage the Internet in order to engage, educate, and influence them.
PLA media has characterized these attempts to achieve convergence between the tradition of political work plus the Internet as “red-blue fusion” (红蓝融合). The red is the “gene” of political work and blue the new environment of the Internet, which is intended to serve as a new environment for political and ideological work that is otherwise undermined by its disruption. The overriding intention is to render political work “full-time, all-around, and all-encompassing.” For instance, the PLA has established WeChat groups to distribute authoritative perspectives on the Party line and encourage personnel to engage more actively with the material designed to educate and indoctrinate. Increasingly, the materials for political work are delivered to PLA officers and personnel via their smartphones, with efforts to develop new platforms for online learning, targeted education, party-building, and cultural activities. (The permission to use smartphones dates back to a July 2015 revision of official regulations that relaxed prior restrictions in response to overwhelming demand for them.) These online platforms have also been leveraged to recognize and resolve real-world problems impacting PLA personnel that might otherwise act as “root causes” for “ideological difficulties.” At the same time, phone tracking, positioning, and monitoring software have been used as another mechanism to ensure control.
Can the PLA connect to a new generation of Chinese netizens on the Internet, or will its attempts to adapt political work to cyberspace prove as ineffective as more traditional methods? To date, the PLA seemingly has yet to standardize or universalize the use of these new techniques. However, the initial progress in “cyber political work” is typically celebrated as providing new ‘vitality’ for this traditional technique. For instance, the PLA has organized a series of forums on the topic at its Xi’an Political Institute, undertaking study and discussion of PLA cyber ideological work and security. Nonetheless, the efficacy of these ‘innovative’ techniques may prove limited. Presumably, many in the PLA may prefer to continue primarily seeking entertainment on their smartphones and the Internet, despite the best efforts of political officers to encourage their use as ‘tools not toys.’ Some of these techniques may also pose cyber or operational security risks and threats to privacy. Although it is difficult to evaluate whether the PLA will succeed in revitalizing this “lifeline,” its persistent attention to this ideological dimension of its mission may continue to detract from actual training activities, reflecting that the CCP tends to prioritize its absolute control above all else.