Tea Leaf Nation

Bloody Brawl Breaks Out During Military Training -- at a Chinese High School

Chinese social media can't agree whether to blame an out-of-control military or spoiled youth.

A recent ugly brawl between paramilitary drill instructors and high schoolers in central China has exposed a fault line between China's military and its people. The bloody Aug. 24 incident, which landed 40 freshmen in the hospital with bone fractures and gashes, is being parsed on China's active social web as either evidence of the wholesale corruption of the Chinese military, or the hopeless degeneration of China's youth.

The conflict occurred during a week of military training at Huangcang High School in Hunan's Longshan, a county of half a million people known for its karst caves. (The bulk of Chinese military recruits are rural youth and the unemployed, not students, but military training sessions are routine at high schools and colleges across China.) The incident was traced back to what several media outlets describe as a playful tiff between a female student and a drill instructor. The liberal Beijing News reported Aug. 26 that the girl's classmates came to her defense and ended up pinning the instructor in what was then still a lighthearted dispute. According to the report, that impertinence led to punitive pushups later in the day for the class, and when students balked, other drill instructors ended up attacking the male students. A teacher who tried to intervene was also reportedly beaten.

The Beijing News quoted one student as saying that drill instructors had been drinking, and its story came with photos of a student in military fatigues cradling a hand with bloody, mangled fingers while a tearful female classmate stood next to him. But some facts are contested: Xinhua, China's official news agency, reported that some of the more serious injuries were caused by students running up to the fourth floor of a school building and punching out glass windows in a rage.

There's also deep disagreement about the meaning of the incident. On the popular military-themed forum Tiexue.net, sentiment toward the incident was decidedly pro-military, reflecting a widely held belief that modern Chinese youth are spoiled and egotistical. Chinese commonly blame those perceived traits on the country's strict family planning policy, which for more than three decades has limited most families to just one child. "Minor injuries; what's the big deal?" asked one reader, adding that Chinese kids today are "too squeamish," and the solution was to toughen them up with more drills. "Otherwise, everyone will be a sissy, and who will protect the motherland?" Another acknowledged that differing accounts made it hard to judge who was in the wrong. But, he continued: "It's a fact that kids today are hard to manage." He wrote they were "little emperors" and "little princesses," slang terms used to describe spoiled children. The best way to understand them, he continued, was to watch the 2007 National Geographic television program Brat Camp China, which followed a group of underachieving Chinese youth through a tough-love military-style boot camp that had them hiking up to 25 miles per day.   

So what do the proverbial brats think? On Weibo, a Twitter-like social media platform whose users skew young, the military bore most of the invective. Although the drill instructors in Longshan were from the People's Armed Forces, the arm of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) responsible for training and recruitment, the Weiborati viewed them as emblematic of the entire PLA. The Chinese military's image has been tarnished in recent months by public announcements of graft charges against high-ranking officers Gen. Xu Caihou and Lt. Gen. Gu Junshan in June and April, respectively. One commentator wrote that the influence of officers like Gu and Xu had created a lack of discipline and pockets of moral decay in the military. "I think the drill instructors assigned to do the training at Huangcang High were these kind of people," he wrote. Underneath a news article about the brawl from Huasheng Online, a news portal run by the state-run provincial paper Hunan Daily, another reader called the drill instructors "scum." A more lighthearted but no less damning appraisal came from someone who said the drills in school were useless "except as a way to get to know other freshmen." He argued that student training sessions should be abolished.

For its part, the Longshan government shied away from blaming anyone and described the incident in an Aug. 25 statement as "unpleasantness." It pledged to fully investigate and prosecute any wrongdoers. It also managed to find a bright side, noting that during the melee nobody used "knives, glass, or other weapons."

Shujie Leng contributed research. 

ifeng.com / Fair Use

Tea Leaf Nation

The Problem With Calling Those U.S. and Chinese Planes a 'School Bus and a Ferrari'

With relations this touchy, even simple metaphors can go awry.

Communication between China and the United States can often resemble ships passing in the night -- or planes passing through international airspace. But when it comes to this particularly fraught bilateral relationship, perhaps metaphors are best avoided. On Aug. 22, after a wing commander in the air force of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) performed a barrel roll over the top of a U.S. surveillance plane in international airspace near the southern Chinese island of Hainan, a U.S. defense official told Foreign Policy's Gordon Lubold that the Chinese plane, a J-11, was like a Ferrari, while the larger and slower U.S. P-8 plane was akin to a school bus. The official was saying that the PLA plane was the faster and more nimble of the two, but Chinese state media has taken issue with the seemingly innocuous choice of words.

An Aug. 25 Chinese-language editorial on the website of People's Daily, widely regarded as a Communist Party mouthpiece, imputes a dark motivation to the simile. The piece quotes someone named Wang Zhiming complaining that the turn of phrase "has an ulterior motive, is inappropriate," and contains "severe insinuations and misrepresentations." Wang, whose occupation or identity is not revealed in the article, complains that a school bus is intended to protect children, while Ferraris are strongly redolent of tuhao, a derogatory term for China's nouveau riche. (Wang adds that the airman's maneuver was "very normal" and that a safe distance remained between the two planes.)

It's highly unlikely that the U.S. defense official had a firm enough grasp of the Chinese zeitgeist to intend the simile as an insult. But even accounting for the likelihood that state media was grasping for umbrage, it's true that the word Ferrari is highly loaded in China, a country with a grim recent history of deadly crashes involving the expensive Italian cars. Most famously, in March 2012, a Ferrari driven by the son of Ling Jihua, a high-ranking politician close to then-President Hu Jintao, crashed in Beijing, killing the son and seriously injuring two scantily clad female passengers. Online images of Ferrari smithereens and swirling rumors about Ling (who was later demoted) reached such a pitch that authorities felt compelled temporarily to block the term "Ferrari" from searches on Weibo, the country's largest microblogging site. In February 2014, a red Ferrari driven by a 21-year-old crashed into a Beijing guardrail and killed one of the passengers. Then in May, a young Chinese exchange student driving a Ferrari died after being struck by a speeding Hyundai in Monterey Park, California. The latter accident was not the Ferrari driver's fault, but the image of a glitzy sports car slashing recklessly through crowded warrens continues to represent everything that's wrong with China's runaway economic development, and the wealth inequality it's engendered. 

Although Wang did not mention it directly, school buses also evoke painful memories, in this case of seeming indifference to child safety. In November 2011, Chinese were outraged by news that 19 nursery school children perished after their school bus was struck by a truck in northern China. The vehicle they rode originally had only nine seats, but 64 occupants had been packed in at the time of the crash. In April 2014, eight children died in a school bus after it overturned on a slippery road on the island of Hainan while on an unapproved field trip. In July, another overcrowded bus fell into a reservoir in southern China, killing the eight students and three adults on board -- yet the vehicle had been designed for only seven people.

The Daily article, which does not appear to be available in English, ultimately reads as one of several state media attempts to both reflect and shape internal, Chinese anger towards a U.S. plane's proximity to the mainland. In other words, it's not really about the words at all. By contrast, state run nationalist outlet Global Times may have put the situation more bluntly. In an August 25 English-language editorial, the Times declared that although "Washington always argues that such short-range surveillance of China is conducted within international airspace and waters," Beijing has "made up its mind to force the U.S. to back down."  

Office of Defense Secretary